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Party Paranoia Could Destroy Hopes of Immigration Reform

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Leading up to last year's Senate debate and the eventual passage of comprehensive immigration reform, GOP Senate leaders and party strategists were privately arguing that failure to do something real on immigration reform, while not necessary to capturing a majority in 2014, was extremely important for 2016.

They emphasized that there was a need to get the issue off the table during this Congress and to at least begin to reduce the perception that Republicans are anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant. They recognized that the Republican Party was increasingly being seen among many as a party for old, white men—a demographic that is decreasing, not increasing, as a share of the electorate.

In the states with pivotal 2016 Senate races—not to mention presidential battleground states—Republicans are fighting in much tougher terrain than they are this midterm election. Getting buried with the Latino vote is nothing less than a prescription for a disaster. In 2012, Mitt Romney garnered only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, and the national Republican vote for Congress managed only 3 points better among Hispanics. As recently as 2004, President George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote and oh, by the way, got reelected.

It is increasingly likely that Republicans will do well in this year's midterm elections not because of who they are, but because of who they are not. They are not President Obama's party; they are not the party that passed the Affordable Care Act. Given that the Senate majority will largely be determined this year in states where association with Obama and his signature legislative achievement are the political kiss of death, it's both the map and the mood that are giving Democrats a tough time this year. In November, Republicans have the additional advantage of facing a smaller midterm electorate, one that is older, whiter, more conservative, and more Republican than the substantially larger and more diverse electorate that we often see in presidential years.

Republicans can afford to be complacent about the House, which is more compartmentalized into ideological and partisan cul-de-sacs (both Democratic and Republican). This is a result of both redistricting and population-sorting that transformed an electorate that voted 59.2 million Democratic to 57.9 million Republican in the national popular vote for the House into a chamber comprised of 234 Republican seats to 201 Democratic seats.

The Senate map looks very different. Only one Republican-held seat this year is in a state Obama carried, that of Susan Collins in Maine, who is a lock for reelection. With 14 of the GOP seats in states Romney won—not a particularly high bar for the party to pass—Republicans aren't defending many vulnerable seats. In 2016, when Republicans will have 24 seats up, seven are in states previously won by Obama; five are these seven are in states he won by 5 points or more. The remaining 17 are in Romney states. Conversely, no seats held by Democrats are in states that Romney won in 2016. (The map flips again in 2018, when Democrats have 25 seats up, five in Romney states, while the GOP has only eight seats up, just one in an Obama state.)

The Democratic challenge is more immediate. In recent weeks, many Democrats have been deluding themselves into thinking that they have turned the corner in terms of reducing the radioactivity of the ACA in this year's elections by touting the more than 8 million people who have thus far signed up for Obamacare. Unfortunately for the party, there is very little survey evidence suggesting that this is the case. At best, only a few polls indicate that Democrats are warming a bit to the law, but there appears to be no movement among independents, forget Republicans.

Second, the 8 million sign-ups sounds great, but keep in mind that this number represents only 2.5 percent of our population of 313.9 million. What's more, few of these sign-ups are in the 10 states that will decide whether Democrats maintain their majority. What happens in the other 40 states this November is pretty irrelevant to the contest for the Senate; they either have no Senate races this year or have largely uncontested races.

Obama's Gallup job-approval rating in his just-completed 21st quarter in office (from 44,167 interviews, taken Jan. 21-April 19) is just 42.4 percent, not much better than the 41.2 percent in the 20th quarter. At this point, his approval ratings stand below that of Presidents Clinton, Reagan, and Eisenhower, and remain better than George W. Bush and Nixon. At this point in his presidency, Bush was plummeting from rough parity with where Obama was a couple of months ago on his way to just 25 percent at the end of his second term. Obviously, whatever Obama's national numbers are like, his numbers in the key Senate race states are much worse.

Although the Senate did pass comprehensive immigration reform last year, the chances of any kind of significant reform passing the House this year are low at best. Optimists hope that in June or July, after many Republican incumbents have their primaries behind them, or possibly in a lame-duck session after the election, the House will take up the issue. The smart money is against that happening.

First, the votes just don't seem to be there. Second, House Republican insiders, even those who privately would like to see a bill pass, are pessimistic because many in their ranks do not trust that Obama and the Democrats won't hang them out to dry. Their fear is that even if the House passed something, which would undoubtedly create enormous divisions and political problems in their conservative base, they have little confidence that Democrats wouldn't move the goalposts on them, leaving the GOP with no progress on immigration reform but having a badly divided party. Their suspicion, correct or not, is that Democrats would rather have a club to beat Republicans with than really address the immigration problem. Paranoid or not, this is an example of how the fundamental lack of trust between the leaders on each side gets in the way of solving problems.

The bottom line is that while Republicans will probably do very well this November, with better than an even-money chance of winning a Senate majority and a lock on holding the House, the GOP will still emerge with a demographic and political millstone that they will have to contend with in 2016.

This article appears in the April 22, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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