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 »
SAYS HIS DEATH STEMMED FROM A FISTFIGHT
Saudis Admit Khashoggi Killed in Embassy
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, had died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Eighteen men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them. State media also reported that Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials had been dismissed."

Source:
ROGER STONE IN THE CROSSHAIRS?
Mueller Looking into Ties Between WikiLeaks, Conservative Groups
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Mueller’s team has recently questioned witnesses about the activities of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, including his contacts with WikiLeaks, and has obtained telephone records, according to the people familiar with the matter."

Source:
PROBING COLLUSION AND OBSTRUCTION
Mueller To Release Key Findings After Midterms
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections ... Specifically, Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice." Mueller has faced pressure to wrap up the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said an official, who would receive the results of the investigation and have "some discretion in deciding what is relayed to Congress and what is publicly released," if he remains at his post.

Source:
PASSED ON SO-CALLED "SAR" REPORTS
FinCen Official Charged with Leaking Info on Manafort, Gates
1 days ago
THE DETAILS
"A senior official working for the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has been charged with leaking confidential financial reports on former Trump campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Richard Gates and others to a media outlet. Prosecutors say that Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, a senior adviser to FinCEN, photographed what are called suspicious activity reports, or SARs, and other sensitive government files and sent them to an unnamed reporter, in violation of U.S. law."
Source:
FIRST CHARGE FOR MIDTERMS
DOJ Charges Russian For Meddling In 2018 Midterms
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."

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