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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
ARGUE THE REPEAL IS WITHIN TRUMP’S PRESIDENTIAL POWERS
Trump Administration Appeals 9th Circuit Decision on DACA
7 minutes ago
THE LATEST

Last Wednesday, a Federal Judge in San Francisco ruled that the Obama-era DACA program must be allowed to continue until lawsuits play out in court. The Trump administration has appealed that decision on the grounds that President Obama exceeded his authority by creating the program, and that Congress must pass legislation protecting dreamers if they are to be allowed to stay. “It defies both law and common sense," said Attorney General Sessions in a statement, that a “single district court in San Francisco” had halted the administration’s plans. The White House will also petition the Supreme Court to intervene in the case, in an unusual bid to bypass the Ninth Circuit altogether.

Source:
WOULD STILL FACE HOUSE VOTE, TRUMP’S APPROVAL
Senate Democrats Need GOP Ally in Vote to Reinstate Net Neutrality
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS
Source:
WOULD INCLUDE SLEDDING HILL, WOMEN’S GARDEN, SPORTS CENTER
Chicago Advocacy Groups Oppose New Obama Foundation Center
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

A number of historical and environmental groups oppose construction of President Obama's presidential center in the proposed site, Jackson Park. Charles Birnbaum, president and founder of D.C.-based nonprofit, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, said that there is "plenty of land on the South Side that they could and should use," but that the organizers "have been adamant that they must have historic public parkland for the purpose." Birnbaum is joined by Friends of the Parks, Jackson Park Watch, Openlands, National Association for Olmsted Parks, Save the Midway, Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago, and 200 faculty at the University of Chicago, Obama's alma mater. President Trump's Environmental Protection Agency gets final say on approval, and may reject it if the center is found to have "adverse effects" on Jackson Park.

Source:
FIRST TRIP ABROAD
DHS Sec. Nielsen Going to Canada
2 hours ago
THE LATEST
HAPPENED LAST WEEK
Bannon Subpoenaed By Mueller
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The move marked the first time Mr. Mueller is known to have used a grand jury subpoena to seek information from a member of Mr. Trump’s inner circle. ...Mr. Mueller is likely to allow Mr. Bannon to forgo the grand jury appearance if he agrees to instead be questioned by investigators in the less formal setting of the special counsel’s offices in Washington."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login