Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant revival tour might cause headaches for down-ballot Republicans who are already trying to put space between themselves and the divisive party front-runner.
Eleven Republicans this week turned down what would have been a golden opportunity to publicly criticize President Obama and his immigration policies — a move that highlights the difficult terrain for incumbents up for re-election in increasingly diverse swing states. Their colleagues in the Senate filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, making clear that the leading party in Congress vehemently opposed Obama’s executive actions on immigration. If perhaps a year ago more Republicans would be willing to jump onboard, for now, some are taking a pause.
The stand-out absentee signatures were from incumbents out of states where Latino migration to the suburbs of major cities is having a significant impact on the diversity of voter rolls. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and to a lesser extent, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, are all from states with a growing Latino population.
Three Senate Republicans from Latino-heavy states, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona, are all well-practiced in the dance of softening tough-talk on immigration enforcement to avoid alienating voters. They declined to sign the brief, along with moderates in the upper chamber, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Many incumbents have a tight-rope walk ahead of them. While Trump’s hardline on immigration has clearly resonated with primary voters, his delivery and messaging on the issue could jeopardize races in November for Republicans in Latino-heavy states. In an election where Democrats could chip away at the GOP’s Senate majority, Republicans are wary of giving their opponents any ammo to liken them to Trump.
Some 5 million people would be shielded from deportation under the executive actions, representing a key pillar of Obama’s legacy, not to mention the heart of the Democratic platform on immigration.
Congressional Republicans have railed against the executive actions since their inception. The topic was so contentious that Republicans even threatened to shut down part of the government in order to see the model program gutted. The House GOP filed its own amicus brief last month. Republican leaders even held a highly unusual floor vote approving the brief, which gave lawmakers a chance to flaunt their opposition to the president’s actions.
This is why the absence of 11 signatures on a low-stakes “friend of the court” filing is so notable. Republicans from deep-red or rural districts conceivably benefit from ginning up anger against illegal immigration. But on a national scale, party leaders recognize there is a clear problem.
Polling and research over the last five years has consistently shown that by and large, the majority of Americans don’t favor mass deportations. They want portions of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to have an option to stay — legally. The same idea even holds when looking only at views of Republican voters.
The Pew Research Center last week found that 74 percent of registered voters said that immigrants should be offered a way to remain in the U.S. legally. Broken down by party, a majority of Republicans, or 57 percent, still agreed.
This is a crucial point considering that the top candidates gunning for the GOP presidential nomination — Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — both plan to either explicitly deport all 11 million people, or give them no chance of remaining in the U.S. legally.
The approach from the party’s new standard bearers is the exact opposite of what GOP elites publicly called for years earlier. Obama trounced Mitt Romney’s share of the Latino vote by more than 44 points. Allies in the immigrant rights movement were almost gleeful in the ways the demographics were shaping up: Republicans would either need to have a change of heart and embrace immigrants, or doom their chances of ever taking the Oval Office anytime soon.
The moral of the story was supposed to be that Republicans were transitioning to make the Latino vote more of a toss-up and increase diversity from within its ranks. And to some extent, it worked.
Republicans took control of the Senate the 2014 midterm elections, showing that Latinos weren’t necessarily a lock with Democrats. GOP candidates that year, like Gardner in Colorado or Greg Abbott for governor in Texas, won the Latino vote over their Democratic opponent.
But now Trump’s candidacy has made any repeat scenario of Republicans claiming broad swaths of the Latino vote seem near-impossible.
Trump's favorability among Latinos is outright dismal. And so if he wins the nomination, there’s a #NeverTrump movement of Latinos that would likely turn out in full force. That's not just a problem for the real estate mogul’s own presidential ambitions, but also for the senators riding on his coattails.