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The GOP’s Primal Fear of Primaries The GOP’s Primal Fear of Primaries

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The GOP’s Primal Fear of Primaries

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


Coming soon: The primary calendar looms large for Republicans.(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

This article appears in the February 11, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as Primary Fear.

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