As the executive director of pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, Frank Sharry has pushed politicians for years to “lean in” on immigration.
He says it worked with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) in 2008 and with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in 2010. But the most unlikely beneficiary of the so-called leaning in, Sharry says, was Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) last year.
“How did he do it? He didn’t do it by saying I’m going to change my position. He did it by explaining his position,” Sharry told Fusion.
“You win by leaning into the issue,” Sharry told Fusion. “I think Lindsey Graham is the Republican version of that.”
“The future of the GOP is at risk,” he added. “And he’s carrying the mine, saying, ‘Hey, fellas. We’re going to get our clocks cleaned unless we get right on this issue.’”
On Monday, Graham is announcing a new candidacy — he will enter his name into the ballooning pool of Republican candidates seeking to become the country’s next president. And judging from his presidential preparations so far, he’ll often be out on an island on an issue of rising importance among the Republican primary electorate.
Out on the trail so far, Graham has continued to pronounce a full-throated support of a comprehensive legislative solution to reform the nation’s immigration laws. He helped spearhead the reform effort in the Senate in 2013 as part of the “gang of eight,” which included fellow Republican candidate and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida).
But while Rubio has cautiously shifted his position after coming under fire from conservatives, Graham has continued to support a similar, comprehensive approach — and defended the process to anyone who questions it.
“It’s a sharp contrast to Marco Rubio, who has been running away from it ever since,” Sharry said. “It’s an act of betrayal to immigrants and their allies, and raises character questions for all voters.”
Rubio has said that he now believes a “piecemeal,” step-by-step approach toward reform is a better solution — but he has also touted his 2013 efforts on the bill that passed the Senate and was never taken up in the House of Representatives. When questioned after his campaign announcement whether he’d sign his own immigration bill, Rubio demurred.
“It’s focus-group tested malarkey,” he said. “It is so transparently bogus to anyone, including [Rubio]. That’s what’s so infuriating about it, is that he knows it.”
That kind of talk, Sharry said, “makes our blood boil.” Because he believes Graham’s re-election last year in the deep-red state of South Carolina can serve as a model to GOP presidential candidates worried about damaging their standing with primary voters. Graham fended off primary challengers and won in a landslide, with about 56 percent of the vote (the next closest candidate got about 16 percent).
It’s a model that Republicans think needs to be extrapolated nationally. Whit Ayres, a pollster who works on Rubio’s campaign, recently said that Republicans would need to win 40 percent of the Latino vote to take back the White House in 2016.
Alfonso Aguilar, a former Bush administration official who’s now the executive director of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, is another Republican fretting over the party’s future. He fears Republicans may only accept the reality on immigration reform after the growing electorate of Latinos moves further and further away from the party.
“The question is, when are Republicans going to get it? Is it going to be sooner or later?” he told Fusion earlier this year. “Are we going to have to lose a couple of presidential elections to understand that? I’m hoping that we can learn that lesson soon.”
Rubio earlier this year told a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Committee that “you can’t even have a conversation” about immigration reform until steps were taken to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
But Graham has offered up that conversation at numerous Republican cattle calls. Last month in New Hampshire, he portrayed himself as a candidate who can solve the Republican Party’s woes with Latino voters. The party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, received only 27 percent of the Latino vote against President Barack Obama, a stark contrast from when former President George W. Bush won 44 percent of the demographic in 2004.
“We better get immigration right and pick people from all over the world, not just ones next door,” Graham said at First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit in New Hampshire last month.
“You’re going to have to come up with an immigration system to have workers to run the economy in the future,” he added. “And the reason I’m making this point — there’s no room I can’t go into as a candidate and look any member of the Hispanic community in the eye and say, ‘Listen. I believe that you should be a Republican. You’re hard-working. You’re entrepreneurial. Pro-life. Patriotic. And I’ve tried to solve a hard problem like immigration.’”
Graham was the only one at that summit — which featured most of the 19 potential Republican candidates (or 35, as Graham joked) — to outline the case for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Rubio talked about needing to see enforcement measures before he could support that path. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he’d support a path to “earned legal status” for undocumented immigrants — not citizenship.
Sharry, for one, hopes Graham is able to gain enough momentum to get on the debate stage and make the subject of immigration reform an issue that gets as much attention as possible. Fox News and CNN, which are hosting the first two GOP debates, said recently they’d limit the stage to candidates who place in the top 10 of national polling.
“He will make all these idiots,” Sharry said, “with their focus group tested soundbites sound ridiculous.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.