Can Rubio Make Immigration a Non-Issue for 2016?

Posted April 15, 2013 at 6:49pm

Assuming the Senate “gang of eight” unveils its immigration legislation, as promised, a disproportionate share of this week’s media attention will once again be aimed at a single senator in that octet.

That’s even though this chapter of the Marco Rubio story has hardly changed in recent weeks — certainly not since Sunday, when the Republican from Florida appeared on a record seven network TV news shows. His logistical feat should have ended any mystery about his intentions on immigration: He’s decided, without ambiguity or room for backtracking, to defy the vituperative warnings from fellow conservatives and take the lead for his party on the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws since 1986.

Even though the “will he or won’t he?” question has been answered, the coverage will continue to be enormous because of the consequences for the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes — and for Rubio’s own aspirations to become the first Latino in the White House. But the mystery on both those fronts seems to be dissipating as well. Support for creating a multi-requirement pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who reside in the country illegally stood at a solid 57 percent majority among Republicans in a Gallup Poll released on April 12.

An obvious retort here is that the type of Republicans who answer these surveys are more ideologically squishy than the other sort, those who give the money and cast the early primary votes that will cull the next field of GOP presidential aspirants. Those are the voters that Rubio still needs to be worried about, in theory.

That’s true, though only if the roster for 2016 has some viable candidates who are running to Rubio’s right on immigration. At the moment, that’s not looking like a long or robust list. And it could get shorter if things work out the way Rubio expects.

The reason the senator has been the most important member of the gang of eight from the start is this: As not only the most prominent Hispanic in the GOP, but also the first tea-party recruit with a chance to win national office, his imprimatur provides the conservative cover that so many other Senate Republicans need for their “yes” vote.

And a majority of those 45 senators voting for an immigration bill would make it politically imperative for the House GOP leadership to get on the bandwagon and allow a vote sooner rather than later, in which a decent plurality of rank-and-file Republicans might also vote “yes.” (Of those back-benchers looking to reveal they have a little collaborative independent streak this year, many more are ready to show it on immigration than on gun control.)

So, assume that a bill based on the group’s work gets enacted on a bipartisan wave by this fall, which has now become a better than even bet. And then assume that the reward for the GOP is a significant jump in the Latino vote in the midterm elections to say, 40 percent, which would be a significant 13-point jump in just two years and would place the mark halfway between George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 shares of Hispanic turnout.

That still means the Democrats are getting a lopsided three in five Latino votes, but for the GOP, it would suggest the party’s new tactics have paid off and that it has started to tap into the nation’s fastest growing demographic group.

It’s tough to envision Rubio being denied the most individual credit for that turnabout. And it’s also difficult to imagine the people on the other side rousing a formidable voice for repudiating the new statute during the 2016 campaign. Implementation would just be under way, so critics would have scant evidence for their presumed “we told you it would be amnesty, and without boosted border security” argument.

Of the 14 others likeliest to run for president next time, six are governors or former governors who, even now, can pretty much be counted on to give their blessing to an immigration package along the lines that Rubio and his gang envision. They’ll all be positioning themselves as “big tent” candidates: Jeb Bush of Florida, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Rick Perry of Texas.

Four others are members of Congress who all may well decide to align themselves as a bloc with Rubio this summer. Otherwise they risk being on the wrong side of lopsided vote, which would mean they’d get no credit during a presidential run for helping to boost their party’s Hispanic vote. They are Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, John Thune of South Dakota and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan.

Those remaining on the current long list — Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, surgeon Ben Carson, talk show conservative Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — might all fall on either side of the immigration divide. But at the moment only Santorum, the 2012 GOP runner-up, would seem to have the stature in the early field to make opposition to the bill sound like a counter veiling force.

Rubio has pondered, maneuvered and negotiated where he is on immigration with enough finesse, it seems, that he has a chance to box out all his potential rivals and make immigration the great non-divisive issue of 2016.

Correction: 7:39 p.m.

An earlier version of this post listed the wrong state for which Bob McDonnell is governor and the wrong year for when Rick Santorum was runner-up as the GOP nominee. McDonnell is from Virginia, and Santorum was runner-up in 2012.