The GOP’s Primal Fear of Primaries

Did Boehner have a true change of heart on immigration, or is he playing for time?

House Speaker John Boehner gestures before President Obama delivers the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on January 28, 2014 at the US Capitol in Washington.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Feb. 10, 2014, 5:14 p.m.

More than a few people are scratch­ing their heads over what would seem to be a re­versal by Speak­er John Boehner on im­mig­ra­tion.

It’s been no secret that he has long wanted and thought it was im­port­ant for the Re­pub­lic­an Party to do something to ad­dress the im­mig­ra­tion is­sue, and by ex­ten­sion, the GOP’s grow­ing and per­vas­ive prob­lem with minor­ity voters. It also mat­ters that some ele­ments of the busi­ness com­munity, not­ably the high-tech sec­tor, are frus­trated by our in­co­her­ent im­mig­ra­tion and visa pro­cess, with H1-B visas be­ing a prime ex­ample. After the re­cent House GOP re­treat in Cam­bridge, Md., Boehner and his lead­er­ship team re­leased a set of prin­ciples out­lining their de­sired ap­proach to im­mig­ra­tion. They demon­strated a de­sire for pro­gress and, one would think, op­tim­ism about the House fi­nally deal­ing with the is­sue. The Sen­ate has already passed a com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion bill.

Now, however, Boehner has be­gun back­ing off, say­ing he is pess­im­ist­ic about do­ing any­thing this year. What gives?

Bey­ond the ex­pec­ted push­back by ar­dent foes of im­mig­ra­tion re­form, the ar­gu­ment grew louder, with some Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers as­sert­ing their dis­trust of Pres­id­ent Obama, say­ing things like: The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion doesn’t en­force many cur­rent laws; why should we trust this ex­ec­ut­ive branch to en­force bor­der pro­tec­tion and oth­er pro­vi­sions favored by con­ser­vat­ives and Re­pub­lic­ans — spe­cific­ally, those that the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Demo­crats might not be en­thu­si­ast­ic about?

The ir­re­press­ible Demo­crat­ic Sen. Chuck Schu­mer of New York sug­ges­ted in re­sponse that any new im­mig­ra­tion bill be timed to go in­to ef­fect on Jan. 1, 2017, when Obama is on his way out the White House door, to ad­dress Re­pub­lic­ans’ trust is­sues. (It should be noted that this is an­oth­er ex­ample of Schu­mer re­cast­ing him­self as a con­sum­mate le­gis­lat­or and states­man, re­press­ing his oth­er per­sona as cam­paign strategist and fun­draiser par ex­cel­lence.) It was an art­ful way to ad­dress GOP con­cerns.

But the Obama-won’t-en­force ar­gu­ments really mask a deep­er res­ist­ance to back­ing any im­mig­ra­tion law that could pos­sibly lead to a path to cit­izen­ship for those in the coun­try il­leg­ally and — more im­port­ant — any­thing that could pos­sibly be con­strued in a tele­vi­sion or ra­dio ad as “sup­port­ing am­nesty for il­leg­al ali­ens.” For Re­pub­lic­ans, the fear of be­ing at­tacked from the right and hav­ing to de­fend them­selves from a more con­ser­vat­ive primary chal­lenger is, in some cases, real or en­tirely pos­sible. Even those not fa­cing the im­me­di­ate threat of such a chal­lenge foster a deep con­cern that it could hap­pen.

Al­though a cer­tain amount of para­noia is nat­ur­al for any elec­ted “‹of­fi­cial, it is par­tic­u­larly pre­val­ent now among Re­pub­lic­ans, who are en­meshed in a civil war between the Re­pub­lic­an Party es­tab­lish­ment and the GOP’s tea-party/most con­ser­vat­ive ele­ments. Those in com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts or states also have to keep get­ting their base out to vote in gen­er­al elec­tions — al­though most base voters, par­tic­u­larly con­ser­vat­ives, vote no mat­ter what, even in midterm elec­tions.

But the fear of a primary also has a cal­en­dar com­pon­ent. As of now, only sev­en states (Alabama, Illinois, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ohio, Texas, and West Vir­gin­ia) are past their can­did­ate fil­ing dead­lines. Two more (Mary­land and North Car­o­lina) have dead­lines between now and the end of Feb­ru­ary. The biggest num­ber of fil­ing dead­lines, 19, fall in March (Neb­raska has a Feb. 18 dead­line for in­cum­bents, March 3 for nonin­cum­bents). So, 26 states will pass their dead­lines by the end of March, five more each in April and May, and nine in June; the last two are Delaware in Ju­ly and Louisi­ana in Au­gust. As each month goes by, the fil­ing dead­lines in more states and for more mem­bers will have passed, thus leav­ing many home free from a 2014 primary chal­lenge.

The dates for the primar­ies — which most mem­bers will likely win and a very few, if any, will lose — start lin­ing up next month: Illinois and Texas in March; 11 states in May; 18 in June; 14 in Au­gust; and four in Septem­ber. Louisi­ana holds its primary on the na­tion­al gen­er­al-elec­tion day, Nov. 4, with run­off elec­tions Dec. 6.

No doubt House GOP lead­ers are mind­ful of the fil­ing dead­lines and primary dates for mem­bers of their con­fer­ence, cal­cu­lat­ing wheth­er there is a ma­gic time when they could bring up im­mig­ra­tion with a max­im­um chance of pas­sage (with one op­tion ob­vi­ously a lame-duck ses­sion). While it could be that Boehner really has had a change of heart about bring­ing im­mig­ra­tion up this year, it could also be that his back­ing off is a stra­tegic re­treat, or a feign, to de­fuse at least some of the op­pos­i­tion un­til the op­tim­al time comes.

One oth­er factor is worth keep­ing in mind (not that House mem­bers would care that much). At least one mem­ber of the Sen­ate GOP lead­er­ship has privately said the reas­on Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors were so will­ing to pass an im­mig­ra­tion bill last year was not the 2014 Sen­ate elec­tions, but the 2016 elec­tions.

Not only a pres­id­en­tial-elec­tion year, 2016 is when 24 Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate seats will be up (sev­en in states car­ried by Obama) and Demo­crats will have only 10 seats up.

For House Re­pub­lic­ans, in their care­fully drawn, ideo­lo­gic­al, and par­tis­an cul-de-sac dis­tricts, the need for the party to get im­mig­ra­tion off the table isn’t that press­ing, but for win­ning and hold­ing a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, and get­ting 270 elect­or­al votes, the con­cern is not the­or­et­ic­al.

COR­REC­TION: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this story had in­cor­rect in­form­a­tion for the num­ber of primar­ies be­ing held in June and Septem­ber.

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