WASHINGTON — Two years ago today, the Republican National Committee released a brutal autopsy report about how to bounce back after the party’s resounding defeat in the 2012 election. In a rare move for the political committee, it urged a policy change the party must make in order to win future elections: embrace immigration reform pronto.
“[W]e must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only,” the RNC declared. It warned, “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.”
Two years later, the Republican Party has jettisoned that advice and moved in the opposite direction, now finding itself fighting to block legal protections for anyone in the U.S. illegally, including young people brought as children and parents of American citizens.
“It will be extremely difficult to win a nationwide election without some movement on immigration reform,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, told TPM in the Capitol on Wednesday.
A memo by the RNC released Wednesday on the two-year anniversary of the 2012 report makes no mention of immigration. Instead it touts the party’s crushing victory in the 2014 midterm election and its strides in digital and data operations and outreach to voters and media. A companion op-ed by RNC Chair Reince Priebus published in Real Clear Politics also didn’t mention immigration.
Far from the broad pro-reform consensus among strategists in the wake of Mitt Romney’s devastating 27 percent showing with Hispanic voters, a divide has since emerged about whether the party really needs Latino voters, or whether it can take back the White House on the strength of white middle class Americans who are souring on Democrats, data suggest.
And hard-core conservative voters have grown more anxious about immigration and continue to fiercely oppose any leniency for undocumented immigrants.
In a reflection of the shifting center of gravity within the GOP, surging 2016 candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently flipped his pro-reform stance on immigration and came out against “amnesty” for those in the country illegally. “My view has changed,” he said, declaring that he “listen[ed] to the people.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during the Iowa Agriculture Summit in Des Moines, Iowa on March 7, 2015 (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
So, how did it all go downhill?
The truth is that Republican voters never fully embraced immigration reform, and the brief aura of inevitability after the 2012 election was driven partially by a fear among GOP strategists who viewed it as an existential crisis for the party. That led to a high-water mark for reform on June 27, 2013, when 14 Republican senators joined all Democrats to pass a sweeping bill that would remake the legal immigration system and put the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants on a pathway to citizenship.
But from there it quickly fell apart. The House Republican majority immediately threw the legislation in the garbage and promised to chart its own course. But it never happened, and there was little appetite for it among members. By November 2014, President Barack Obama gave up on getting immigration reform through the House and moved to use his executive authority to shift the government’s limited resources toward deporting the most dangerous immigrants and let as many as five million temporarily stay and work.
That’s where the GOP’s anti-immigration turn crystallized. Republicans made it their mission to reverse Obama’s actions, complaining about unconstitutional executive overreach and using the threat of a partial government shutdown and litigation to stop him from shielding anyone without proper legal status.
Apart from Walker, many other GOP presidential hopefuls oppose legalizing the undocumented, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), an author of the Senate-passed bill, has backed away from it. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has refused to even discuss the issue.
One notable exception is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, who has unapologetically championed “legal status” for people in the country illegally, this month calling it the “only serious, thoughtful way” to fix the problem. “No one I know has a plan to deal with illegal immigrants — to say that they’re going to be rounded up and taken away,” he said during a trip to Iowa.
Among big Republican donors, there is consternation as to whether the party can defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016 without supporting immigration reform.
“I really believe that the donor community within the Republican Party now finally recognizes — and I only see them willing to get behind and nominate a candidate in 2016 who is willing to take leadership on [immigration reform], stand up for this issue,” Spencer Zwick, the finance chairman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, told reporters last month. “The math is not great if you’re running for president as a Republican.”
This article has been updated to include a comment from Sen. John McCain.