Republicans' Choice: Expand or Expire

Conservatives who think their party can prosper by opposing immigration reform are kidding themselves.

As the immigration issue moves front and center in Congress, a chorus of GOP voices is warning that if immigrants—and, let’s face it, the debate is focused mostly on those from Mexico, Central America and South America—are provided a path to citizenship, Republicans will never again win a national election. The same people also argue that Republicans would find it much harder to win statewide races in places such as Texas that now routinely fall into the GOP column. Implicit in both arguments is the notion that Republicans will remain a competitive party nationally and stay dominant in certain states if they can prevent Hispanic immigrants from becoming citizens and gaining voting rights.

But that position ignores the fact that the 45.5 million Hispanics already in this country legally are registering to vote and are seeing the Republican Party as distinctly hostile. The more the GOP comes to be seen as fighting immigration reform, the more difficult it will be for Republican candidates to compete for this group of voters. Remember, 50,000 Hispanic citizens reach voting age every month.

Two historic events should be recalled as this debate begins in earnest. As recently as 2004, when President Bush was seeking reelection, having run aggressive Spanish-language advertising and outreach efforts in both his presidential campaigns, he garnered 44 percent of the Latino vote nationwide, an important factor in his 51 percent to 48 percent victory over John Kerry. Bush aggressively sought and received Hispanic votes—not a majority, mind you, but a very respectable share. He realized that many Latino voters, particular those rising into the middle class, would consider voting for a Republican.

In the intervening years, conservative activists, and more than a few elected Republican officials, have taken positions on immigration and other issues that resulted in Mitt Romney winning just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote last year. In 2012 congressional races, House Republicans garnered only 30 percent of the Hispanic vote. Given that Bush in 2004 won 58 percent of the white vote, 1 point less than Romney’s 59 percent in 2012, it’s easy to see that a decent share of the difference between the Bush and Romney results came from Latino voters. Ditto for congressional Republicans, who lost the national popular vote for the House last year.

Second, going back still further, Republicans used to win statewide offices in California fairly routinely; that is, until then-Gov. Pete Wilson decided to use the immigration issue to enhance his reelection chances in 1994. Proposition 187 was a ballot initiative that effectively denied illegal immigrants access to public education, state-provided health care, and other social services. This was the first time in modern history that immigration played a central role in a major statewide election. The strategy served Wilson well that year; he defeated state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, the daughter of the late Gov. Pat Brown and sister of current Gov. Jerry Brown, 55 percent to 41 percent. Prop 187 passed 59 percent to 41 percent.

That election and proposition became a watershed for the Golden State’s Republican Party. Before Prop 187, the GOP carried California in nine of 12 post-World War II presidential elections, including six in a row from 1968 through 1988. Admittedly, the ticket was twice headed by Richard Nixon and twice by Ronald Reagan, both Californians. Even so, in 1988, George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis 51 percent to 48 percent in the state. Since Prop 187, Republican presidential candidates have lost California in all five elections.

In 16 California races for the U.S. Senate pre-Prop 187, Republicans and Democrats each won eight times. One Republican win occurred during President Johnson’s landslide victory over GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964. Since 1994, Republicans have lost six Senate elections in a row.

How about the governorship? From the end of World War II until 1994, Republicans won the Governor’s Mansion six times, Democrats four. Democrats have won three times since; outlier Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger won that extraordinary recall election in 2003 and was reelected in 2006, although he was hardly an ordinary Republican. Those are the only post-Prop 187 GOP gubernatorial victories in the state.

And lieutenant governor? Republicans won the state’s No. 2 post six times between the end of the World War II and 1994; Democrats won it twice. Since 1994, Democrats have four victories to the GOP’s zero. For state attorney general, before Prop 187, Republicans won four times, Democrats five. Since then, Democrats have taken the post four times, Republicans zero. This same basic pattern holds up for secretary of state and state treasurer. Proposition 187 and Wilson’s reelection campaign’s use of it proved to be Pyrrhic victories for the GOP, all but killing off the Republican Party as a political force statewide.

Most of the best minds in the Republican Party know that doubling down on opposition to immigration reform is a losing proposition. As Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently put it, the Republican Party is in a demographic death spiral. Republicans have an opportunity to pull out of it if they can find a way to take immigration off the table, shut up or subdue the more extreme voices in their party, and stop alienating Hispanics—and, for that matter, Asian voters (Obama’s winning margins among Asians ended up slightly wider than among Hispanics). The challenge for Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other GOP leaders is how to get immigration reform through Congress without ripping their party apart. I’d say, “That’s why they get paid the big bucks,” but they don’t get paid nearly enough to navigate challenges as great as this one.

This article appears in the June 22, 2013, edition of National Journal as Expand or Expire.