"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.