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Cruz, Rubio, and the immigration fight the GOP hoped to avoid

“This is disaster on all kinds of different levels,” a veteran Republican strategist and lobbyist said yesterday.
Presidential candidate Ted Cruz looks over at rival candidate Marco Rubio before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House of Representatives Chamber, Sept. 24, 2015. (Photo by James Lawler Duggan/Reuters)
Presidential candidate Ted Cruz looks over at rival candidate Marco Rubio before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House of Representatives Chamber, Sept. 24, 2015. 
When Congress took up a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform package in 2013, lawmakers had overlapping motivations. For most Democrats, the goals were substantive: the broken system needs a solution, and the bipartisan bill would be an effective policy.
And while plenty of Republicans also liked the practical implications -- the legislation's emphasis on border security was a major selling point in the GOP -- there was an undeniable electoral consideration. The party's post-2012 "autopsy" report urged Republicans to pass a reform bill to help get the issue off the table before the 2016 election cycle, in part to deny Democrats a potent weapon, and in part to avoid intra-GOP ugliness during the primaries.
We know, of course, that House Republicans ignored party officials' advice and killed the bipartisan reform compromise. And as of yesterday, the ugliness insiders feared came to fruition.
Two of the top Republican presidential candidates -- Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) -- spent the day bashing each other over immigration reform, launching a confrontation that was months, if not years, in the making. Cruz eagerly reminded the political world that Rubio partnered with liberal Democrats on a bill most Republicans condemn as "amnesty," while Rubio tried to make the case that the differences between them on immigration are practically non-existent.
At least yesterday, the fight had downsides for both of them. Cruz, an immigration hardliner, was forced to defend his far-right credentials. Rubio, meanwhile, was forced to confront an issue he'd prefer to ignore, all while continuing to move sharply to the right.
It led Bloomberg Politics to emphasize a good point.

[The dispute between Rubio and Cruz] is raising concerns among some party strategists that the high-profile fight could further alienate Latino and Asian-American voters, wrecking the party's chances in a general election where 30 percent of the electorate is projected to be non-white. “This is disaster on all kinds of different levels,” said John Feehery, a veteran Republican strategist and lobbyist. “I've always been concerned that if we don't get immigration right we have no chance to win this. And right now it doesn't look like we are getting it right or we're going to get it right.”

Given the likelihood that one of these two senators is going to be the Republican nominee, there are a lot of messages party officials would like to hear from them right now. A heated argument over who's further to the right on immigration isn't one of them.
Consider this quote from a report in The Hill yesterday afternoon:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared Thursday that “people will have to be deported” before Congress can move forward on immigration reform. Rubio, whose past support for comprehensive immigration reform has been in the spotlight as he’s risen in the GOP primary polls, said Americans would be skeptical of any attempts to revisit reform until the nation shows it’s committed to enforcing current laws. “We are going to have to deport some people, otherwise if you’re not going to enforce the law, what’s the point of having those laws?,” Rubio said on Fox’s “America’s Newsroom.”

What do you want to bet that Democrats will create very effective general-election ads featuring Rubio saying, "We are going to have to deport some people"? It's the kind of simple, straightforward line that has a definite "Let Detroit go bankrupt" appeal.
On a substantive level, I wholeheartedly agree with Greg Sargent's take that Cruz has the more salient case to make in this fight. Team Rubio has obviously been expecting the offensive, and quickly hit back with talking points that were largely accurate, but there's a bottom line that Rubio and his allies can't avoid: the Republican base absolutely hates the bipartisan immigration bill that came up in the last Congress; Rubio helped write it; and Cruz fought to kill it.
In an argument over who's more in line with Republican orthodoxy on the issue, it's not a close call.
But let's also not forget that the fight itself is doing damage to the candidates and the party, in ways Democrats will be eager to exploit during next year's campaign.