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Primary Results: Anti-Immigrant Wing of the GOP is a Paper Tiger

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House Republican Primaries in NC and OH Demolish Myth of Backlash Against Pro-Reform Republicans

Yesterday’s primaries in North Carolina and Ohio proved, once again, that the supposed strength of the nativist wing of the GOP is more myth than reality.  The results show that the vaunted anti-immigrant movement is loud but not large, and that Republican primary voters are more pragmatic and open to reform than right-wing media pretends.

  • In North Carolina, Rep. Renee Elmers (R-NC), who has taken a pragmatic stance on immigration reform, handily defeated opponent Frank Roche, who staked his candidacy on a hardline immigration stance.  She won by nearly 20 percentage points, a greater margin than her primary victory during her 2012 reelection campaign.
  •  In Ohio, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) beat back Tea Party challengers with hardline immigration positions.
  •  In Ohio, Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) defeated challenger Matt Lynch, who made immigration his signature issue during his time in the state House.  Joyce is widely seen in the district as a moderate on immigration.  Lynch attempted to bring an Arizona-style law to the Buckeye State and introduced bills to deny driver’s licenses and in-state tuition to DACA recipients.  Glen Beck even featured Lynch and his anti-immigration policies on his radio show just last week, but his hardline stance failed to lift the challenger to victory.

After Rep. Ellmers touted the need for fixing the broken immigration system and declared herself open to legalization for undocumented immigrants, anti-immigrant organizations and right wing media allies like Laura Ingraham and Breitbart News targeted her.  Roy Beck of Numbers USA claimed that his organization has 5,300 members in her congressional district and stated, “She’s gotten an earful from our members in North Carolina for weeks now.”  Yesterday afternoon, Laura Ingraham tweeted about the Ellmers race, “Wake up, NCarolina! “Today is Zero Hour for halting amnesty.”  Ingraham subsequently deleted the tweet from her account, perhaps in light of the election results, but we have preserved the image here.

Further bolstering the results of yesterday’s primary elections are a series of polls and public opinion studies.  As the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley assessed, “does the immigration commentary so often heard in conservative media accurately reflect the sentiments of most Republican voters?  Not according to the polls.”  Riley cited several Fox News polls from 2013 and 2014 that show that approximately two-thirds of self-identified Republican voters support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants versus other policy alternatives, before concluding, “The immigration views expressed by Renee Ellmers, Jeb Bush, John Boehner and others on the right may make them pariahs in the blogosphere, but it’s hard to argue that these politicians are out of step with rank-and-file Republican voters.”

In fact, as conservative Republican pollster and consultant Jon Lerner said:

There are around 20 percent of GOP primary voters who oppose most forms of immigration reform.  This minority tends to be vocal, but their level of activism should not be confused with the size of their numbers.  The large majority of primary voters see a badly broken immigration system and want it fixed.

As America’s Voice noted in a 2014 polling memo, the fear that Republican primary voters don’t support immigration reform is simply overstated and not borne out by actual polling and actual elections.  Whether examining immigration in the 2012 presidential primary season or Republican-specific polling conducted during 2013, Republican voters are more open and supportive of immigration reform – including reform with legalization and citizenship provisions – than the punditry tends to assume.  In fact, available district-specific immigration polling conducted in the past year by both Democratic and Republican-affiliated pollsters in 25 different Republican-held congressional districts shows consistent and broad public support for immigration reform in every single district polled.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

Yesterday’s results beg the question why House Republican leaders refuse to stand up to the all-bark, no-bite anti-immigrant wing of the Party and deliver a vote on immigration reform.  The anti-immigrant cabal is a paper tiger and the majority of Republican primary voters are ready for immigration reform.  So, why exactly are House Republican leaders and so many in their caucus so afraid of their own shadow?