GOP walks a fine line on immigration bill
The clash has grown increasingly intense in recent days, drawing in the most senior figures in Republican politics. President Bush aimed unusually pointed language at critics, many within his own party, who oppose a more permanent status for illegal immigrants.
Two conservative senators were booed by Republican crowds in their home states last week for endorsing the legalization plan. And conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh attacked the Bush-backed plan as the "Destroy the Republican Party Act."
On Friday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tied his presidential campaign more tightly to the view that a welcoming immigration policy would boost the GOP in important swing states, as he scheduled an address on the plan June 4 in immigrant-rich Miami and attacked his leading rivals for opposing the measure.
At issue are not just different approaches to immigration, but two competing visions for how to rebuild and maintain a base of loyal Republican voters.
Many Republican strategists and Bush allies blame the party's election losses last year in part on Latino voters who fled the GOP amid a flurry of anti-illegal immigration ads by some of the party's candidates. They say Republicans cannot hope to win a national majority without substantial support from the fast-growing Latino voting bloc.
"I believe that not to play this card right would be the destruction of our party," said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), the Cuban-born chairman of the Republican National Committee, who helped write Senate legislation creating a path to citizenship for most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants. "Hispanics make up about 13% of our country and by 2020 will be more like 20%. It is a demographic trend that one cannot overlook."
Directing his criticism squarely at Limbaugh, Martinez added: "He has emotion on his side, but I think I have logic on mine."
Conservatives and many opinion leaders argue, however, that backing the immigration bill is a dangerous course, because it angers the GOP's mostly white base, as well as swing voters who are open to the party's message of national security and law enforcement.
Some also argue that new immigrants are more likely to vote Democratic, so it makes little sense to increase their numbers. On his radio show, Limbaugh, with an estimated 13 million listeners each week, described the Senate legislation as Democrats "getting a brand new electorate, reshaping it and being able to win election after election after election."
A public spat between the conservative movement's top-rated radio personality and the chief spokesman for the Republican Party would have been unheard of three years ago, when Limbaugh and others like him worked arm-in-arm with the White House and Republican National Committee to reelect Bush and build a network designed to ensure long-term dominance.
Even when running for Texas governor in the mid-1990s, Bush and his political aides worked to forge stronger ties to Latinos, the country's fastest-growing minority. They continued that effort during Bush's two presidential races, waging a sophisticated, bilingual campaign that many credit with helping the GOP make inroads into a constituency that had been moving to the Democrats.
Now, some party strategists fear the effort will end, whether or not Congress approves an immigration law overhaul. They point to high emotions within the party stirred up by the legislation, and note that all of the GOP's major presidential contenders — except McCain — are saying the measure might be too soft on illegal immigrants.
"We are at a crossroads in our country and, yes, in our political party," said Rudy Fernandez, a former deputy to White House strategist Karl Rove and one of the GOP's chief architects of Latino outreach.
The citizenship plan is part of a bipartisan deal that is under debate in the Senate. The deal would heighten border security and stiffen penalties on employers who hire illegally, a priority for conservatives. But, in provisions that anger many conservatives, the bill would offer probationary legal status to illegal workers who were in the U.S. before Jan. 1 of this year, and create a path to citizenship for most of them that could take a dozen years to complete.
Another contentious provision would permit hundreds of thousands of foreigners to enter the country temporarily to work.
Shortly after senators unveiled their compromise bill, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney criticized the measure. Romney called it an "incredible gift" to illegal immigrants and described it as a form of "amnesty."
McCain, a key negotiator on the compromise, at first seemed to be keeping his distance when the deal was announced last week. Now, he has decided to tackle the matter head-on, frustrated at what his aides see as pandering by his rivals and buoyed by new polls showing a majority of Americans support a welcoming approach to immigrants.
He directly challenged one leading critic, conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, who warned Thursday of growing anger among conservatives and a "groundswell of opposition" in the party base.
"So I am supposed to gauge my behavior on whether I am booed or not? Please, Sean," McCain responded.
By embracing immigration in Miami, McCain will be staking a claim to a key issue in an early primary state that Giuliani and Romney have both made central to their strategy for winning the nomination. Romney and Giuliani have both hired aides to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, but the president's younger brother, whose wife is Mexican American, has expressed dismay in the past about the anti-immigration views held by some in his party.
McCain aides say the Arizona senator, like Bush, understands the importance of building ties with Latinos. "We're getting close to the point where we will no longer be a national party if we try to define it as a white male cul-de-sac, gated community party," said John Weaver, McCain's chief strategist.
Some Republican strategists believe the GOP field is being pulled to the right in part by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who is not a top-tier candidate but is running as the most prominent anti-illegal immigration member of Congress.
In an interview, Tancredo accused Bush's allies of risking the party's future by ignoring the GOP base. Deflecting criticism that the immigration issue hurt GOP candidates last year, he argued that the GOP alienated Latinos in 2006 for the same reason it lost support of many other voters: the war, scandals and other administration failings.
"We lost a lot of white males too," he said.
The grass-roots anger at the party elite was on display last week in Georgia and South Carolina, when Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Lindsey Graham ( R-S.C.) were heckled by otherwise friendly Republican audiences for their decision to support the immigration measure. Graham was booed when he mentioned that Bush understood the politics of the issue and performed well among Latinos.
Nationally, exit polls show the GOP share of the Latino vote dropped sharply from an unusually high 40% in 2004 — the result of intensive outreach by Bush's reelection campaign — to just 30% in 2006. Democrats now see a major opportunity to expand their share of the Latino vote, an important bloc in states such as Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado that are expected to play pivotal roles in the 2008 presidential election.
Latino opinion surveys compiled by the pro-Democratic group NDN, and not disputed by top Republican strategists, show that immigration has rocketed from near the bottom to near the top of the list of concerns to Latino voters. More than half, according to the NDN data, say the issue increases their interest in voting.
"Republicans have become a more menacing party to Hispanics over the past year," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the NDN, which has spent millions of dollars targeting Latino voters and documenting the pre-2006 GOP gains.
The tone of the 2006 campaign, along with recent comments by Romney and others, has at least one lifelong Republican questioning his loyalty.
Lionel Sosa worked as a political strategist for President Reagan and both President Bushes. But if the Republican nominee adopts a harsh tone on immigration, Sosa said he would not vote for the GOP.
"Blood runs thicker than politics," said Sosa, of San Antonio, who is the host of a fundraiser for one of the Democratic contenders, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Latino. "I'm not saying I would vote for a Democrat. But I'm saying I would not vote for a Republican who opposed immigration reform."