Will Republicans Lose Primaries Over Immigration Reform?

GOP lawmakers fear a revolt on the issue from their conservative base. But polling and history suggest it's unlikely to materialize.

Jose Luis Magana/Reuters

Republican congressmen fear for their political lives. That's the explanation you most often hear for the GOP's reluctance to approve a comprehensive immigration bill: The members of the House of Representatives, most of whom come from strongly Republican districts, worry they'll lose primaries to conservative challengers if they vote for what opponents consider an "amnesty" bill.

But is this worry justified? Maybe not, according to polling and history.

One recent poll of Republican primary voters on the issue has an interesting genesis. It was commissioned by an organization of immigration-reform proponents, FWD.us. But to conduct it, the group hired Jon Lerner, a Republican consultant and pollster who works exclusively with strongly conservative candidates. Lerner is the pollster for the fiscally conservative Club for Growth; he's advised candidates like Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. In the words of RedState editor Erick Erickson, "He gets conservatives elected."

The poll, conducted nationally by telephone July 8, found there is a segment of the Republican primary electorate that adamantly opposes legalizing undocumented immigrants. But this segment, while vocal, is only about 20 percent of the group. The majority of Republicans strongly want Congress to reform immigration and support the basic components of reform currently under consideration, including the path to citizenship.

"There are around 20 percent of GOP primary voters who oppose most forms of immigration reform," Lerner wrote in a memo about the survey results. "This minority tends to be vocal, but their level of activism should not be confused with the size of their numbers. The large majority of primary voters see a badly broken immigration system and want it fixed."

The poll surveyed 1,000 people who have voted in past Republican primaries in a sample representative of the distribution of GOP voters -- that is, heavily weighted toward the South and Midwest. It found an overwhelming desire to see the immigration system fixed: 79 percent called it "very important" to fix the current immigration system, with another 17 percent saying it was somewhat important to do so. Asked if an imperfect solution would be preferable to no action, 78 percent said that it would.

Respondents were asked their opinion of a reform proposal that would increase border security, require employers to verify the legal status of job seekers, and allow those currently here illegally to become citizens after passing a background check, paying penalties, learning English, and waiting 13 years. Seventy percent supported such a proposal, while 22 percent opposed it. Asked more generally about the idea of a path to citizenship, 65 percent said they support it as long as it comes with more border security; 8 percent supported it even without border enhancements; and 21 percent said they oppose it no matter what.

Another organization's recent poll of GOP voters also found a surprising level of support for immigration reform, Amy Walter reports. There are some caveats here. Those opposed to any kind of immigration reform tend to be much more motivated by the issue than those who support it. And Republican voters don't trust the federal government to keep its promises on border security: 89 percent in Lerner's poll were concerned that immigration reform would fail to secure the border.

Lerner knows a thing or two about knocking off Republican incumbents, something the Club for Growth has pursued ruthlessly in recent years. But based on his research, he thinks incumbents are mistaken to fear being ousted over immigration.

"If I were a Republican member of Congress worried about a potential primary challenge, I would be far more worried if I had a record supportive of tax increases and bailouts than I would about a record supportive of comprehensive immigration reform," Lerner told me. "Those issues -- spending, taxes, the size of government -- are far more animating to a far larger percentage of the primary electorate than is the immigration issue."

What about the history -- haven't Republicans lost by going soft on immigration in the past? There's one high-profile example of this: Rep. Chris Cannon, a six-term congressman from a strongly Republican district in Utah who repeatedly drew challengers based on his moderate immigration record. On the third try, Cannon finally lost to now-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who said Cannon had "failed us for not instituting conservative principles." But of the four primary candidates against the incumbent, Chaffetz was neither the furthest to the right on immigration nor the one most focused on the issue.

Immigration was a factor in the recent primary losses of two senators, Indiana's Dick Lugar and Utah's Bob Bennett. But the conservative case against them was much broader than that. Two current senators, Arizona's John McCain and Jeff Flake, tacked to the right in primaries to successfully fend off immigration-based challenges. Non-incumbents in multi-candidate fields have had success running to the right on immigration, notably Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker. (Ironically, Corker was one of two GOP senators who authored the border-security amendment that allowed the immigration bill to pass the Senate last month.)

There's really only one instance of a sitting Republican politician whose position on immigration was the primary factor in losing his seat. And there's a notable counterexample: Russell Pearce, the Arizona legislator who authored the state's restrictive immigration law, SB 1070, was ousted by another Republican in a recall in 2011, and subsequently lost a Republican primary when he tried to make a comeback.

It's well-financed groups like the Club for Growth that have proved a far greater danger to Republican incumbents than grassroots anger over immigration. And as BuzzFeed recently reported, the Club has no interest in starting primary fights over immigration. Even Heritage Action, the political arm of the think tank headed by former Senator Jim DeMint, which issued a widely lambasted report on immigration earlier this year, told BuzzFeed it doesn't intend to spend money in 2014 primaries.

Members of Congress who weathered the last immigration fight, in 2006-07, have vivid memories of the outpouring of anger it unleashed on the right. But there's ample evidence immigration has receded as an issue for GOP voters since that time, and that the noise made by "amnesty" opponents may not match their numbers. As Lerner puts it: "Contrary to some perceptions, it is clear that Republican members of Congress who support comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship, do not run afoul of the majority opinion of their primary voters."