The GOP's Steve King Problem

Party leaders tried to sideline the conservative Iowa congressman on immigration. Instead, his views have gotten momentum with his colleagues.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Saturday, March 16, 2013. It may seem early, but the diehard activists who attended the three-day conference are already picking favorites in what could be a crowded Republican presidential primary in 2016. (National Journal)

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee released a 100-page report detailing how the GOP needed to retrofit its agenda and soften its tone. But if Republican officials had wanted to save time, they could have issued a shorthand summary that read: Be less like Steve King.

The Iowa congressman's outspoken conservatism embodies the kind of politics that, in the RNC's own words, alienates minorities, young voters, and moderates, the very people the GOP desperately needs to bring under its tent. That immigration reform brings out King's most incendiary rhetoric is especially troublesome, because regaining popularity among Hispanic voters is the party's biggest priority heading into 2016.

But if distancing themselves from King is the goal, Republicans are off to an uneven start. The party's rank-and-file members have instead sought to emulate him, employing the very kind of agenda and tone on immigration that Republicans once said they needed to distance themselves from. And that has the GOP's political professionals fretting that the party is returning to the old habits that led it to electoral disaster.

There's no better recent example than this month's near-unanimous House Republican vote to support restarting deportations of the children of illegal immigrants — a measure sponsored by King. Ostensibly, the vote would reverse a directive from President Obama last year, when he directed the government to suspend deportations of young men and women brought to the country illegally by their parents, but who had successfully completed school or enrolled in the military. GOP lawmakers cast it as a repudiation of the president, not Hispanics.

But politically speaking, the vote was a slap in the face to the Latino community, Republicans said.

"My biggest worry has always been that, the last few cycles, we've been increasingly defined on issue of immigration solely by what we're against and not enough about what we're for," said Kevin Madden, a former adviser to Mitt Romney who frequently discusses immigration reform with Republicans on Capitol Hill. "I think, when you have votes against the president, and against the executive order, it's not making progress toward defining what an aspirational immigration policy looks like and how it fits into larger kind of economy we're hoping to build in the United States."

King's amendment wasn't unexpected. But what was surprising was that nearly all of his colleagues followed suit. Only six House Republicans opposed it; 221 of them voted for it. The latter group includes House memebrs like Reps. Mike Coffman of Colorado, Gary Miller of California, and Joe Heck of Nevada, three swing-district members representing large Hispanic constituencies. All three are particularly cognizant about not needlessly alienating Latino voters.

"The problem is that it can clearly be misinterpreted, and that's too bad," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. R-Fla., who said he would have voted against the measure. (He missed the vote.) "Folks that might otherwise vote for the 'dreamers' voted the other way out of frustration with an administration that is out of control. I wish they would have chosen another issue."

House Democrats seized on the vote. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched Spanish-language radio ads against nine Republicans — including Coffman, Miller, and Heck — that charged the GOP had yet to evolve its views toward the Hispanic community.

"The Republican party insists that they have changed, but once again, House Republicans like Gary Miller have betrayed our community, rejecting President Obama's executive order that ended the deportation of Dream Act-eligible young people," the narrator said in one spot that target Miller.

King hasn't let the extra attention over the immigration debate silence him. Last week, King offered his usual controversial take, this time tweeting about an alleged incident in his Capitol headquarters. "20 brazen self professed illegal aliens have just invaded my DC office," he said. "Obama's lawless order gives them de facto immunity from U.S. law."

Those comments are part of a nagging problem for the GOP of tone-deafness toward the Latino community. Republicans voting against a comprehensive immigration-reform package will have a litany of reasons, such as insufficient border security, they can choose from to explain their reasoning. But when the vote's focus is solely about deporting children, there's less political wiggle room.

Republicans, of course, are still debating whether to support an immigration reform plan that includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. And led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the party has given concrete indications it's going to the back the comprehensive measure and fulfill the wishes of its political class.

"We've come a long way in the last year on this issue," said Henry Barbour, one of five committee members to conduct the RNC's autopsy report. "I think we've made a lot of headway. But, like anything, there are ups and downs."

As Barbour said, he wishes some Republicans would "speak in ways that are more unifying than divisive" about immigration. But he's confident that even the party's most strident voices can ultimately come to an agreement.

"It's something the country really needs," he said, "and I hope the Steve Kings and Marco Rubios can sit down at the table together and work out something out that can pass."

Beth Reinhard contributed contributed to this article