Given the likely outcome, the Virginia governor’s race could be a sign of things to come for the GOP in 2014 when it comes to the politics of immigration. Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s hardline immigration positions, including his past statements comparing immigrants to rats and his labeling of notorious anti-immigrant Rep. Steve King (R-IA) as his “favorite” congressman, have alienated a large swatch of Latino, Asian, and immigrant voters who are increasingly influential in Virginia and nationally.
On the other hand, forward-thinking Republicans are reading the demographic writing on the wall. This weekend, Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA) announced plans to cosponsor the House immigration bill, HR 15. It’s no surprise that the first Republican to step forward hails from California, a state that has gone from purple to blue state because of the rise of Latino, Asian and immigrant voters and because of the state GOP’s mishandling of immigration. Rep. Denham was followed today by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) who added her name to the list of cosponsors. Additionally, 28 Republicans have come out publicly in support of reform with citizenship and there are dozens of other silent supporters who populate the House GOP caucus. The majority support in favor of reform with citizenship is there, yet the only immigration floor vote the House has taken this year was on a Steve King amendment to deport DREAMers.
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:
The choice before Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) is clear: either schedule a vote on citizenship or walk the Republican Party right off the demographic cliff. Either modernize the party or go the way of California and, potentially, states like Virginia. While the Ken Cuccinelli/Steve King direction on immigration is a tried and true failure, pro-reform Republicans like Jeff Denham and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen understand that the new political realities of the electorate demand a new and pro-reform approach. House Republican leaders will have to choose whether their direction will involve grasping the get-out-of-jail card being offered by Democrats, or cementing the Party’s brand as anti-Latino and anti-immigrant.
See below for more on the two directions facing Republicans on immigration:
- The Anti-Immigrant Ken Cuccinelli & Steve King Direction: As the Washington Post notes in an article highlighting the growing political clout of Virginia’s Latino and Asian-American communities, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s “record as a vocal opponent of immigration reform — well-publicized by Democrats — has left many Latinos with an image of Cuccinelli as not sympathetic to their concerns.” Though Cuccinelli tried to downplay his anti-immigrant record during this race, his past record is extensive. Cuccinelli also said at a May 2012 dinner in Iowa that anti-immigrant extremist Rep. Steve King (R-IA) was one of his “very favorite congressmen” and noted, “No disrespect to any of the others, but I probably spend more time with Steve on Capitol Hill than anybody else.” As noted, the only House vote on immigration was King’s amendment to subject DREAMers to deportation – a vote that was supported by House Republican leaders and that only six House Republicans voted against.
- The Republicans’ “Hispanic Lifeline” – an Alternate, Pro-Immigration Direction: Longtime Washington journalist Roger Simon writes in a Politico piece titled, “Will GOP pass up Hispanic lifeline?” that “Logically, Republicans in the House would want to pass immigration reform, because it would be good for the Republican Party. It would also be good for immigrants and, more important, it would be good for the United States. But all that has become beside the point. Republican obstructionists in the House don’t want to pass immigration reform because they don’t want to give a victory to President Obama…” While House Republican leaders have yet to acknowledge the wisdom of Simon’s advice and analysis, individual House members have started to act. California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham and Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have joined as co-sponsors of HR15 – sensible immigration legislation comprised entirely of provisions that have attracted bipartisan support. The legislation now has 187 co-sponsors and would pass the House if given a vote. Beyond just Jeff Denham, other California House Republicans also vocally support reform with citizenship – little surprise given California’s demographic realities and the California Republican Party’s harsh experiences about the political disaster of mishandling immigration.
Yet the pro-reform support goes well beyond just the Latino voting community and those with high concentrations of Latino voters. Reform with a path to citizenship is popular across the electorate and across the nation. Conservative constituencies – including business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and evangelical leaders – are engaged in a lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill this week in support of the House moving forward on immigration reform with a path to citizenship, as the New York Times noted.
The likely results in Virginia will just be further evidence that the GOP needs to adapt to a changing America or risk extinction as a viable national party. One of the surefire ways to do so is for House Republican leadership to move forward on sensible immigration reform. What is less clear is whether they will end up siding with the broad majority of the nation or with the narrow contingent opposed to reform.