GOP conservatives believed they had won the illegal immigration fight last year when congressional leaders embraced a deportation crackdown, but big-money donors are mounting a counterattack, saying the Republican Party must nominate a pro-legalization candidate if it is to win the White House in 2016.
In a recent call with reporters, Spencer Zwick, finance director for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney — who took a particularly hard line on immigration and deportation — said the next standard-bearer must be like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who advocates a pathway to citizenship for most illegal immigrants.
“If someone wants to be taken seriously running for president, in my opinion, they need to be in a similar place,” Mr. Zwick said.
The dichotomy between Congress, where legalization is a dirty word for many Republicans, and the presidential campaign trail, where a healthy number of potential candidates have described legalization as a critical part of any immigration debate, is striking.
“It’s the thorniest issue for Republicans today,” said Mark Rozell, political science professor at George Mason University. “Party leaders and major donors mostly lean one way; grass-roots activists who dominate primaries lean the other way. And there’s no workable middle ground, it seems.
“The issue is a huge problem for the party right now,” he said. “Reform alienates the base; restrictive policies alienate almost everyone else. I don’t see any winning formula for the party going forward.”
Of the major GOP candidates, Mr. Bush, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Marco Rubio have called for a pathway to citizenship in recent years — and Mr. Graham and Mr. Rubio were members of the “Gang of Eight” senators who wrote the 2013 immigration bill that legalized most illegal immigrants, giving them a chance at citizenship.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, signed a Dream Act law allowing illegal immigrants to attend state colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates, as did former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The dueling visions will be aired this week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which will host an immigration panel discussion with Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, and Ed Martin, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Missouri GOP to take over for Phyllis Schlafly as head of the Eagle Forum.
“Within the technology business community, the need for an increase in H1B visas and green cards for people with high-tech skills is very important for our workforce,” Bobbie Kilberg, a donor backing Mr. Christie, said. “It is important for our workforce and for the economy because, unless we can grow our companies, we don’t contribute revenues to our economies. So growing our companies is essential to growth of the American economy in the 21st century.”
“It is an issue that we all have to face,” said Mel Sembler, a Florida donor backing Mr. Bush. “There are 12 million people who are here illegally. You can’t throw them out, so you have to have the leadership that is able to get people to sit down [and fix the problem]. What we need now is new leadership.”
Mrs. Kilberg said, “clearly most business people favor comprehensive immigration reform.”
Mr. Martin, however, said legalization is “a nonstarter for any conservative, or American,” and that moving in that direction is a death sentence for a candidate — and perhaps the GOP.
“His call is not only incorrect, it is a way to guarantee that we lose,” Mr. Martin said of Mr. Zwick’s comments. “It is an invitation to end your electoral career. The only question is whether it destroys the Republican Party at the same time.”
The last few years have seen the GOP go through wild swings on the issue.
Mr. Romney’s firm stance, encapsulated with his preferred solution of “self-deportation,” led to his being largely rejected by Hispanic voters in 2012. In an election postmortem, the Republican National Committee concluded the GOP needed to get the immigration issue behind it by embracing legalization.
Mr. Graham and Mr. Rubio led that effort in the Senate in 2013, helping shepherd a bill in a 68-32 vote that saw 14 Republicans join all Democrats in the chamber in support of granting quick legal status to illegal immigrants, then giving them a chance at citizenship while the government tried to improve border security.
House GOP leaders initially had hoped to follow the Senate’s lead, but a rebellion among conservatives quashed that, and Speaker John A. Boehner emerged chastened from a House Republicans’ issues conference in 2014. The surge of illegal immigrants into Texas last year further stiffened Republicans’ opposition, and the House passed several bills calling for more deportations.
GOP pollster John McLaughlin said the party’s shift from legalization has coincided with an uptick in national security concerns related to global terrorism.
“If Americans don’t feel secure, they are not going to allow some sort of immigration solution that leaves the borders open to real security threats,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “If people felt that the border was secured and illegal immigration was reduced by 90 percent, they would easily go for a deal.”
Still, some political analysts say voting trends favor those who back legalization.
“Mitt Romney received 59 percent of the white vote and lost the election by almost four points, getting just 27 percent of the Latino vote, down from President George W. Bush’s 44 percent in 2004,” said Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report. “It’s hard to see how Republicans make the Electoral College vote math work with this course. The white vote is shrinking, and Republicans are just digging the hole deeper.”
But Kevin Broughton, spokesman for Tea Party Patriots, said Republicans must remember their base voters.
“Is it surprising that big business donors want a steady stream of cheap, unskilled labor? Not really,” Mr. Broughton said. “But Republicans who ran hard against executive amnesty were rewarded with historic majorities. To turn that mandate on its head now and search for a nominee who would reward illegal aliens with citizenship, well, that’s counterintuitive.”
Part of the problem for the GOP is the different constituencies they face. House Republicans, who seek election in small, generally homogenous communities, have constituents who are overwhelmingly conservative and opposed to legalization; senators, who are elected in statewide contests, face a complex mix of voters.
Presidential candidates, meanwhile, face the prospect of having to run nationally, including in states where Hispanics make up a large percentage of voters and have indicated that immigration is a threshold issue for them.
But getting through a primary with a pro-legalization message could be difficult. Rep. Steve King, who hosted a conservative gathering last month in Iowa, which opens the nomination contest, has made the issue a key test for candidates in his state.