Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has always clashed with his party’s base when it comes to immigration.
He reminded us of that last weekend, when he said that many immigrants come to the U.S. illegally as an “act of love” to provide for their families. If Bush chooses to run for president in 2016, however, there’s a good chance he won’t be alone in backing immigration policies that could anger Republican primary voters.
Immigration will shape the Republican primary race in 2016, especially because Congress is unlikely to pass a reform bill before the campaign gets underway. And the outcome of the race will help determine the prospects for reform.
The politics of the issue have become muddled for Republicans. Last year, GOP establishment figures embraced immigration reform and the Senate passed a bill that provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants with bipartisan support.
But the Republican-controlled House rejected that bill amid opposition from the conservative rank-and-file. GOP lawmakers failed to come up with a viable alternative. And Republicans in the House haven’t just ignored the issue. They’ve voted to pass measures that immigrant rights activists view as antagonistic.
Still, GOP leaders understand that the party’s political future hinges on not making the same mistakes it did in 2012, when Mitt Romney’s decision to adopt “self-deportation” as his policy toward undocumented immigrants alienated Latino and Asian-American voters.
As New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait pointed out last March, a bevy of top-tier potential 2016 candidates have backed the general principles of comprehensive immigration reform. Many have gone to the point where reversing their position would look silly. The establishment does not need to turn to Bush, who has notable flaws, for candidate who sees eye-to-eye with them on immigration.
Sen. Marco Rubio co-authored the Senate’s immigration bill. Rep. Paul Ryan backed the House GOP leadership’s immigration principles, which included earned legalization for undocumented immigrants. Sen. Rand Paul voted against Rubio’s bill, but broadly supports comprehensive immigration reform.
“The bottom line is the Hispanic community is not going to hear us until we get beyond this issue,” Paul said last week at an event in Washington.
Several state-level Republicans have adopted immigration policies that could appeal to Latino and Asian voters, as well. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has endorsed a federal immigration overhaul. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have both signed bills granting undocumented students access to in-state tuition.
Of course, these candidates will almost certainly face a backlash from vocal elements of their party. In a 2011 debate, Perry’s opponents jumped on him for his in-state tuition law. The Texan rebuked his rivals, saying, “You don’t have a heart.” The moment made supporters of immigration reform feel good, but it helped sink his chances of winning the GOP primary after the conservative voters he needed to win were turned off by his rhetoric.
Bush’s “act of love” comments are already being compared to Perry’s, foreshadowing even greater fallout if he decides to enter the race.
Ted Cruz, and to a lesser extend Rick Santorum, could become the advocates for immigration hardliners in 2016. Both could push their rivals to the right on the issue by painting them as “amnesty” lovers. Cruz, especially, has a big enough megaphone and the respect of the conservative grassroots to make that happen.
What sets Jeb Bush apart from the rest of the field on immigration is that he has no qualms about riling the base on core issues like immigration.
The question for the Rubios, Ryans, and Pauls of the world is whether they decide to maintain their support for immigration reform, fall silent on it, or backtrack entirely.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.