How the House GOP Is Setting the Agenda for the Party’s 2016 Candidates

Presidential hopefuls like Rand Paul are being forced to react to the actions of House Republicans.

US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to the press outside after listening to US President Barack Obama speak about poverty during an event in the East Room of the White House's private dining room January 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Aug. 22, 2014, 8:12 a.m.

On Thursday, the night­mare scen­ario many top Re­pub­lic­ans have feared about their up­com­ing White House primary star­ted to hap­pen.

In an in­ter­view with Breit­bart News (flagged by The Huff­ing­ton Post), Rand Paul said he sup­ports a House-ap­proved meas­ure to end Pres­id­ent Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion to de­fer de­port­a­tions for il­leg­al im­mig­rants who came to the United States as chil­dren. Earli­er this month, the vast ma­jor­ity of House Re­pub­lic­ans, up­set with what they con­sidered ex­ec­ut­ive-branch over­reach, voted to end De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals, or DACA.

“I’m sup­port­ive of the House bill and I think it will go a long way to fix­ing the prob­lem,” Paul said, ac­cord­ing to Breit­bart.

The Ken­tucky sen­at­or’s po­s­i­tion on the im­mig­ra­tion meas­ure mat­ters a great deal for his own pu­tat­ive pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Paul has made a much-pub­li­cized push to broaden the GOP’s ap­peal to ra­cial minor­it­ies. At the same time, he is try­ing to win the sup­port of hard-line con­ser­vat­ives who dom­in­ate the nom­in­at­ing pro­cess. In this case, he has ap­par­ently de­cided the lat­ter is more im­port­ant.

But his in­ter­view Thursday mat­ters more for what it says about the re­la­tion­ship between the GOP’s con­gres­sion­al branch and its field of pres­id­en­tial hope­fuls. The would-be lead­ers like Paul aren’t set­ting their own agen­das; in­stead, they’re be­ing forced to re­act to the ac­tions of Re­pub­lic­an con­gress­men. And in most cases—with their eyes locked firmly on the GOP primary—they shy away from dis­agree­ing with a le­gis­lat­ive body that best re­flects the col­lect­ive will of the party’s con­ser­vat­ive bloc.

That’s a prob­lem for a party that just two years ago was con­vinced it needed to win over vot­ing blocs like ra­cial minor­it­ies, wo­men, and young people—all of whom it un­der­per­formed with in 2012. Most of the House GOP’s ac­tions, com­ing from mem­bers whose main threat comes not from a gen­er­al elec­tion but a primary, re­flect a far dif­fer­ent set of elect­or­al in­cent­ives than those that con­front can­did­ates seek­ing na­tion­al of­fice.

Re­peal­ing DACA, for ex­ample, bran­dishes a Re­pub­lic­an’s claim in his or her own dis­trict to hold the pres­id­ent ac­count­able, but in a pres­id­en­tial race it threatens to ali­en­ate Latino voters who con­sti­tute an ever-lar­ger share of the vote in battle­grounds like Col­or­ado, Flor­ida, and Nevada. It’s no co­in­cid­ence that in one of the few midterm-elec­tion battle­grounds whose elect­or­ate mir­rors the coun­try’s, the Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ate, Rep. Cory Gard­ner, voted “no” on the meas­ure.

And now that Paul has staked out a po­s­i­tion on im­mig­ra­tion, pres­sure will grow on his po­ten­tial rivals to fol­low suit. It’s a fa­mil­i­ar situ­ation for Re­pub­lic­ans: Dur­ing the last primary, the House GOP voted al­most un­an­im­ously in fa­vor of polit­ic­ally tricky meas­ures like the Ry­an budget or de­fund­ing Planned Par­ent­hood.

Be­fore long, those po­s­i­tions had be­come stand­ard-is­sue among all of the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tenders—in­clud­ing the even­tu­al nom­in­ee, Mitt Rom­ney.

It’s a pro­cess Re­pub­lic­an strategists openly fret about. And with three months be­fore the midterm elec­tions even end, it’s already start­ing to hap­pen.

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