WASHINGTON — Midterm elections that will decide control of the Senate are three months away, and the 2016 presidential campaign will start in earnest soon after. Yet the Republican Party still can’t figure out what to do about illegal immigration.
It’s the issue that vexed Republicans as much as any in their 2012 presidential loss. It’s the one problem the party declared it must resolve to win future presidential races. And it still managed to bedevil the party again last week, when House Republicans splintered and stumbled for a day before passing a face-saving bill late Friday night.
The fiasco proved anew that a small number of uncompromising conservatives have the power to hamper the efforts of GOP leaders to craft coherent positions on key issues — including one that nearly two-thirds of Americans said is an important to them personally, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll released last week.
“It would be very bad for Republicans in the House not to offer their vision of how they would fix the problem,” South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said when the initial House bill on immigration collapsed. While Republicans in the House are able to reject the proposals of Democrats, Graham said, that’s not enough: “At least they have a vision.”
While often a flashpoint issue among Republicans in their primaries this year, the party could get a grace period of sorts in November. Immigration appears likely to have only a modest impact on the roughly 10 Senate races that will determine control of the chamber.
Even if President Barack Obama moves ahead with a proposal to give work permits to millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, Democratic strategists said Republicans won’t reap much of a benefit. Republicans, they argued, have already squeezed as much as they can from voters angry at the president by hammering at his record on health care, the IRS, foreign policy and other issues.
Hispanics made up less than 3 percent of all registered voters in 2012 in seven other states with competitive Senate races: Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Iowa, Michigan, Georgia and Kentucky. So any Democratic benefits from an Obama executive action on immigration could be just as limited.
Both parties agree that immigration is likely to play a bigger role in the 2016 presidential election. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP nominee in 2008, said his party can’t win without supporting an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is among the potential candidates to urge the party to liberalize its approach to immigration.