How House Republicans Sabotage Their Presidential Candidates

Friday’s immigration vote and others like it are repelling the voters a GOP nominee will need to take the White House.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 17: Immigration reform protesters gather in front of the White House on July 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. The protest was organized by Amnesty International to push the message 'Don't Send Unaccompanied Migrant Children Back.' Amnesty International and the protestors want to demand that President Obama protect the rights of unaccompanied migrant children, some as young as five years old, who are crossing the southwest border of the United States. Reportedly these children are fleeing organized crime, gang violence and insecurity from many Central American countries. Reports also state that many of these children are survivors of sexual violence and at higher risk of kidnapping, trafficking and other serious human rights abuses.
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Alex Roarty and Scott Bland
Aug. 2, 2014, 5:51 a.m.

House Re­pub­lic­ans’ bill to undo one of Pres­id­ent Obama’s im­mig­rant-pro­tec­tion pro­grams will nev­er be­come law. But it could still cause the GOP trouble in the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. To un­der­stand why, just look at how Rep. Cory Gard­ner voted on Fri­day night.

Faced with a sim­il­ar vote in 2013, the Col­or­ado Re­pub­lic­an stuck with his party and voted to end the pro­gram. But this time, fa­cing a tough Sen­ate cam­paign in the one 2014 battle­ground state that most epi­tom­izes a rap­idly di­ver­si­fy­ing Amer­ica, Gard­ner split from party lead­ers to op­pose the GOP ef­fort to kill the im­mig­ra­tion pro­gram.

Gard­ner, who rep­res­ents a safe Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict, has mod­i­fied sev­er­al po­s­i­tions over the past year to bet­ter po­s­i­tion him­self to win statewide in Col­or­ado, the tip­ping-point state in the last two pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. He ap­pears to be fol­low­ing the play­book most Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al thinkers pre­scribe if the party hopes to at­tract the new voters ne­ces­sary to re­take the White House after a crush­ing dis­ap­point­ment in 2012.

But, as Fri­day’s House vote on the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals (DACA) pro­gram demon­strated, most Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t mak­ing sim­il­ar changes to their im­mig­ra­tion po­s­i­tions. And con­sequently, it’s un­likely the next GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, put through the rig­ors of a hy­per-com­pet­it­ive primary con­trolled largely by con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists, will have the same flex­ib­il­ity, giv­en op­pos­i­tion to DACA is now thor­oughly woven in­to or­tho­doxy. The party’s stand­ard-bear­er, in ef­fect, will have to try to win Col­or­ado after tak­ing policy po­s­i­tions the state’s cur­rent GOP Sen­ate nom­in­ee plainly thinks would hurt his chances at vic­tory.

“Short-term, this is a lot tough­er for Demo­crats than for us,” said Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Wes An­der­son, ref­er­en­cing polls show­ing im­mig­ra­tion hurt­ing Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents across the coun­try in 2014. “Long-term? I think Sen. [Marco] Ru­bio’s ex­per­i­ence with the is­sue has taught most Re­pub­lic­ans to tread very lightly in­to these wa­ters.”

What happened Fri­day night is, in many ways, rep­res­ent­at­ive of how con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans have hurt their party’s at­tempts to win back the White House in 2016.

After the 2012 elec­tions, Re­pub­lic­ans de­clared with great ur­gency that the party must broaden its ap­peal to wo­men and ra­cial minor­it­ies or face near-per­man­ent ex­clu­sion from the White House. But in the 21 months since that elec­tion, GOP law­makers have gone the oth­er way, whit­tling away at their party’s ap­peal among the voters a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate would need to take the White House.

“There are a num­ber of things Re­pub­lic­ans can do to be more open to court­ing His­pan­ics and court­ing wo­men voters,” said Glen Bol­ger, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist. “The ques­tion is, does the party have the will­power to do it? So far since 2012, the an­swer would have to be no.”

That’s not to say Re­pub­lic­ans are destined to lose the next White House race, or even per­form worse with voters (like Lati­nos) who turned away from them in droves two years ago: Obama’s dis­mal second-term ap­prov­al num­bers and an in­grained pess­im­ism about the dir­ec­tion of the coun­try present huge chal­lenges to any po­ten­tial Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, in­clud­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton. But just as Obama’s deep ad­vant­ages with Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, His­pan­ic, and cer­tain white groups of voters lif­ted him to a re­l­at­ively com­fort­able reelec­tion vic­tory, the party’s ready-made demo­graph­ic edge could carry his suc­cessor in just over two years.

Re­pub­lic­ans were sup­posed to start eas­ing those dis­ad­vant­ages after 2012. And the lack of pro­gress might not hurt much in a 2014 land­scape that mar­gin­al­izes Lati­nos and some oth­er grow­ing Demo­crat­ic con­stitu­en­cies.

But Col­or­ado is the one ma­jor 2014 state that il­lus­trates the GOP’s longer-term prob­lem on im­mig­ra­tion. While sev­er­al vul­ner­able red-state Demo­crats have cau­tioned Obama not to move too far, too fast on im­mig­ra­tion uni­lat­er­ally, Sen. Mark Ud­all has leaned hard in the oth­er dir­ec­tion. In June, the Col­or­ado Demo­crat took to Latino ra­dio to urge the pres­id­ent to uni­lat­er­ally do more to stop de­port­a­tions of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants if the House didn’t act. And while most House Re­pub­lic­ans didn’t budge on DACA between 2013 and 2014, Gard­ner did.

Un­like their Sen­ate coun­ter­parts across the coun­try, Ud­all and Gard­ner are com­pet­ing in a state that mir­rors the grow­ing His­pan­ic vote na­tion­ally. Ac­cord­ing to exit polls in Col­or­ado’s last Sen­ate elec­tion in 2010, 12 per­cent of voters were His­pan­ic—al­most ex­actly the same share of the na­tion­al elect­or­ate that Lati­nos will likely com­prise in the next pres­id­en­tial race. And though most House Re­pub­lic­ans’ dis­tricts are shiel­ded from these demo­graph­ic changes, their votes still af­fect their party’s chances of im­prov­ing on Mitt Rom­ney’s 27 per­cent show­ing among Lati­nos in the last pres­id­en­tial race.

It isn’t just im­mig­ra­tion, either. This con­gres­sion­al ses­sion, Re­pub­lic­ans have em­braced an ar­ray of oth­er po­ten­tially prob­lem­at­ic agen­das that could ali­en­ate the type of swing voters they need.

Take gun con­trol, an is­sue al­most com­pletely ab­sent from the 2012 pres­id­en­tial race that has since emerged as a vis­cer­al top­ic in the na­tion­al de­bate. Re­pub­lic­ans’ op­pos­i­tion to le­gis­la­tion that would ex­pand gun-sale back­ground checks puts them at odds with most voters, es­pe­cially res­id­ents of cit­ies and mod­er­ate, sub­urb­an wo­men.

Plus, so­cially mod­er­ate wo­men might be ali­en­ated by a de­bate about Re­pub­lic­an sup­port for a ban on all abor­tions after the 20th week of preg­nancy or one about the Su­preme Court’s Hobby Lobby de­cision that cur­tailed ac­cess to some forms of birth con­trol.

In­di­vidu­ally, these is­sues pale against polit­ic­al be­hemoths, such as the state of the eco­nomy. But stacked on top of one an­oth­er, like bricks in an ever-grow­ing wall, they make it harder for Re­pub­lic­ans to con­nect with the voters they need. As Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Ron­ald Brown­stein has ar­gued, Demo­crats are con­fid­ent about their chances in the 2016 races in large part be­cause they have aligned them­selves with the coun­try’s grow­ing cul­tur­al ma­jor­ity while Re­pub­lic­ans, by and large, have res­isted it.

Pro­spect­ive Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates aren’t bound to any of these po­s­i­tions: Ru­bio, for in­stance, can cred­ibly sep­ar­ate him­self from his party’s con­ser­vat­ive wing on im­mig­ra­tion policy.

But most of the policies em­braced by House Re­pub­lic­ans are now part of con­ser­vat­ive or­tho­doxy, and—at min­im­um—de­vi­at­ing from them dur­ing the primary will come at a price. And on an es­pe­cially po­tent is­sues like gun con­trol, it’s hard to ima­gine Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates do­ing any­thing oth­er than toe­ing the party line.

“There’s no ques­tion what’s go­ing on right now is go­ing to be an is­sue in the pres­id­en­tial primar­ies,” Bol­ger said. “It’s go­ing to im­pact the de­bate on the Re­pub­lic­an side.”

Ab­sent any sig­ni­fic­ant gains with minor­ity voters, the GOP’s path to the White House de­pends on win­ning an even high­er share of the white vote than Rom­ney’s near-60 per­cent sup­port in 2012. That’s a daunt­ing task, es­pe­cially if the GOP does face former Sec­ret­ary of State Clin­ton on the bal­lot in Novem­ber 2016.

Most early polls pit­ting Clin­ton against a hy­po­thet­ic­al Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent show her car­ry­ing a siz­able lead. Two years out, those num­bers don’t mean much. But what does mat­ter is why she car­ries a strong early ad­vant­age: her strength with white, col­lege-edu­cated wo­men.

It’s a group Obama ac­tu­ally struggled with two years ago, win­ning the low­est per­cent­age of white-col­lar wo­men (46 per­cent) for a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee since Mi­chael Duka­kis in 1988. But a Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll from Ju­ly showed Clin­ton draw­ing at least 53 per­cent sup­port from that group in a hy­po­thet­ic­al match­up with five po­ten­tial GOP op­pon­ents (Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Mike Hucka­bee, Paul Ry­an, and Rand Paul), ac­cord­ing to crosstab data shared with Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Clin­ton doesn’t per­form bet­ter than Obama with any oth­er group of white voters, the poll shows. But her pop­ular­ity with well-edu­cated white wo­men alone would make rep­lic­at­ing Rom­ney’s sup­port with white voters dif­fi­cult to rep­lic­ate.

It’s why mak­ing pro­gress with minor­ity voters was con­sidered so im­port­ant among Re­pub­lic­ans.

“Ab­so­lutely, I’m con­cerned,” said Rep. Adam Kin­zinger, an Illinois Re­pub­lic­an who voted against the GOP bill Fri­day, about what it means for his party’s His­pan­ic out­reach. “I think we’ve got to get to­geth­er as a party and be for something, have a real talk about im­mig­ra­tion re­form. And, you know, have a real sit-down talk about it. It’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult, but you know, we’ll get there. And that’s go­ing to take our 2016 can­did­ate to lead.”

Contributions by Sarah Mimms

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