In the last presidential election, Mitt Romney positioned himself as the most anti-immigration general-election candidate Americans have seen in a generation. The Republican nominee opposed both comprehensive reform and the Dream Act; he endorsed “self-deportation”; he criticized bilingualism; and he casually threw around words like “amnesty” and “illegals” as staples of his campaign rhetoric.
It was tough to imagine what more Romney could have done to alienate immigrant communities, and the results were predictable: President Obama received over 70% of the Latino vote.
How much worse can Republicans make matters? The party’s 2016 candidates can do the one thing Romney didn’t: go after legal immigration.
Republicans often rail about undocumented immigrants. But Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, an expected GOP presidential candidate, took it a step further Monday by sounding some critical notes about the number of those who immigrate to the U.S. legally.“In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying – the next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages. Because the more I’ve talked to folks, I’ve talked to [Alabama Sen. Jeff] Sessions and others out there – but it is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today – is what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing to wages. And we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward,” Walker said in an interview with Glenn Beck, according to Breitbart News.
The reference to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is important – the right-wing Alabama lawmaker recently made the case for curtailing legal immigration. For Walker to affiliate himself with Sessions and his allies is evidence of the top-tier presidential hopeful adopting a very conservative posture on one of the cycle’s biggest issues.
To be sure, Walker isn’t alone in far-right field. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told msnbc earlier this year that he considers “legal immigration” a problem that contributes to decreased wages.
But given recent polling, Walker is far more likely to compete for the Republican nomination than Santorum, so his far-right rhetoric on immigration is that much more significant.
Indeed, though we don’t yet know if others will soon follow Walker’s lead, it’s hard to imagine contenders like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul going this far. This, too, may carry its own electoral consequences – for anti-immigration voters in the GOP base, the governor will probably be the only top-tier candidate with a message on this issue that truly resonates.
The Wisconsin Republican has been all over the map on immigration, adopting contradictory postures in different venues and on different dates. But if he’s now telling fringe conservative media figures that he’s worried about legal immigration, Walker apparently has made up his mind and decided what kind of voters he wants as supporters.