A Republican can back legalization for the country's 11.7 million undocumented immigrants and still win reelection.
Sen. Lamar Alexander proved that point in Tennessee on Thursday, when he handily defeated two Tea Party challengers who sought to tar him for voting in favor of a comprehensive immigration reform bill last year. The bill, which died in the House of Representatives, would have radically reshaped the immigration system, increasing legal immigration flows and strengthening border security.
The most controversial provision among conservatives, however, was a measure that would create a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country without authorization or overstayed a visa. That's partly why Alexander received lukewarm ratings from conservative groups like Heritage Action for America and The American Conservative Union.
Yet Alexander still cruised to a win over Tennessee State Rep. Joe Carr and George Flinn, a millionaire radio station owner and radiologist from Memphis, the most serious challengers. Both Carr and Flinn criticized Alexander for supporting what they considered "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants.
The victory gives credence to the idea that Republicans can be pro-immigration and still win reelection.
Alexander isn't the only GOP senator to prove that theory this summer. Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) was one of the architects of the immigration reform bill proposed in the Senate. He scored an easy primary win in June despite facing attacks on his immigration views.
Such success stories could be important to the Republican Party on the national level. The GOP believes it needs to increase its share of the Hispanic vote to win the White House, but it's still grappling with a top issue for Hispanics — immigration.
Roughly half of Hispanics worry that a family member or close friend could be deported, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center. Sixty-two percent of Hispanics would like to see major changes to the immigration system.
Some midterm narratives have countered the idea that a Republican can dabble in humane policies for undocumented immigrants without paying an electoral price. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) was unexpectedly taken down by Tea Party challenger David Brat, a Virginia economics professor who appears to sit to the right of Cantor on a number of issues, including immigration.
But there was no clear evidence that immigration sunk Cantor, who once floated the idea of drafting a bill to grant legal status to young undocumented immigrants. At the least, Cantor's campaign appeared to believe immigration was a problem; in the final days before the primary election, his team sent out mailers attempting to portray him as a hardliner.
Just as immigration didn't singlehandedly sink Cantor, it wasn't the only factor in Alexander's victory. The Tennessee incumbent had a fundraising advantage and decades of experience in state politics.
Tennessee isn't a particularly big magnet for immigration. Only 4.5 percent of residents are foreign born, far below the national average of 13 percent. And Lamar Alexander isn't an immigration liberal, either. He's gotten a strong rating from the immigration restrictionist groups Numbers USA for his stance on border security and mandatory worker verification, despite not being one of their favorite elected officials. A private prison company that runs immigration detention centers is one of his top campaign donors and he spoken out in favor of making English the official language of the United States.
The case is still indicative — if Lamar Alexander could be pro-immigration reform and coast to victory, so could some of his fellow Republicans.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.