Victory on Arizona Immigration Law Could Cost Republicans in the Long Run

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, accompanied by by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talks to reporters in Aston, Pa., Monday, April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

{{ BIZOBJ (photo: 17023) }}If the Supreme Court rejects the Obama administration's challenge to the Arizona immigration law, the ruling would be widely viewed as a victory for the Republican Party, whose leadership spearheaded the law in the state and championed its spirit nationwide.

But at what cost?

(RELATED: Could the Immigration Case Turn Ariz. into a Blue State?)

Vindicating Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration could embolden other Republican-led states to pass similarly tough laws --  as Georgia, Utah, Indiana, Arizona, and South Carolina have already done "“ and further the perception that the GOP is hostile to immigrants, and indirectly, to the Hispanic community.

That would put the party on the wrong side of demographics. Hispanics comprise the fastest growing share of the U.S. electorate and wield the power to swing elections in key battleground states, including Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Virginia. These states helped put Obama in the White House and will determine the majority party for decades to come.

(RELATED: The Making of an Immigration Deal?)

"For the long-term political health of the Republican Party, it's absolutely critical that we do substantially better among Hispanic voters,'' said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who has done surveys on immigration issues. "Numbers don't lie, and the numbers are clear: The percent of the electorate that is white is declining -- and declining rapidly. If we had the demographics in this country in 2008 that we had that we had in 1980, John McCain would be president of the United States.''

The percentage of the electorate that is white has fallen from 88 percent under Ronald Reagan to 74 percent when the first African-American president was elected. Ayres added,"We're not talking about differences at the margins. We're talking about fundamentally different electoral outcomes.''

(PICTURES: Stakeholders in the Ariz. Case)

No wonder, as polls show Romney lagging behind Obama among Hispanic voters, the presumptive Republican nominee has started to retreat from the hard line against illegal immigration that he took in the primary campaign. He recently told supporters at a fundraiser in Florida that the Republican Party needs to come up with its own version of the Dream Act, which would offer citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who enroll in college or the military. In another sign that Romney is worried about his image with Hispanics, his campaign pushed back on the perception that he praised the Arizona law in a nationally televised debate earlier this year, insisting last week that he was referring to the state's electronic database for employers to check legal status.

"If the party as a whole continues to take a hard line on immigration,  we look like the bad guys,'' said Hispanic media strategist Lionel Sosa, a former adviser to Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign. "The Republican Party does not want to write off the Hispanic vote.''

(PICTURES: Where the Presidential Candidates Stand on Immigration)

Some political analysts question whether the crackdown on illegal immigrants in Arizona and other states could fuel a Democratic backlash like the one that followed Proposition 187 in California, a GOP-led initiative in 1994 that sought to bar illegal immigrants from receiving public services. It was declared unconstitutional, but the uproar in the Hispanic community helped turn the largest state in the country, home to Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, from red to blue.

If Arizona saw a similar backlash, a state that has voted for only one Democratic nominee since Harry Truman could suddenly be in play. So could other reliably Republican states with growing Hispanic populations.

"Proposition 187 was suicide for Republicans in California. It remains to be seen if the same thing happens in Arizona, but the ingredients are there,'' said Arizona-based political analyst Michael O'Neil. "Take these trends out another 20 years -- Texas could become Democratic, and then you have a whole new ballgame. We're moving to a point where this country will no longer be majority white, and if Republicans don't get a foothold among Hispanic voters, they'll be dead.''

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American often mentioned as a possible running mate for Romney, could help the party bridge the gap. The hotshot freshman senator sought the middle ground at a University of Phoenix/National Journal forum last week when he said that although he thinks the Arizona law is constitutional, he does not see it as a "model.'' He also touted a possible alternative to the Dream Act that would offer legal status and work visas, but not citizenship, to people brought to the United States illegally as children. Romney, who campaigned with Rubio for the first time on Monday in Pennsylvania, said he was considering the proposal. 

The Rubio plan is already being attacked from both sides of the political spectrum, with liberals warning that it would create a permanent underclass and conservatives decrying what they see as amnesty. Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida, a hero in the conservative movement, told Fox News: "I think [Romney] ought to be very careful for being seen as maybe pandering to a certain electorate or sub-electorate. That is a real danger, because you don't want to seem that you're going out and being a politician."

But Ayres, a Rubio adviser who partnered with the Republican-leaning Hispanic Leadership Network to poll on the issue, said there is strong support for the proposal across party and ethnic lines. At a time when the chances of passing sweeping immigration-reform legislation are remote and more states may follow Arizona's example,  he said, Republican support for a tougher version of the Dream Act could help realign the GOP with a crucial voting bloc of the future.