How the House GOP Is Setting the Agenda for the Party's 2016 Candidates

Presidential hopefuls like Rand Paul are being forced to react to the actions of House Republicans.

On Thursday, the nightmare scenario many top Republicans have feared about their upcoming White House primary started to happen.

In an interview with Breitbart News (flagged by The Huffington Post), Rand Paul said he supports a House-approved measure to end President Obama's executive action to defer deportations for illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children. Earlier this month, the vast majority of House Republicans, upset with what they considered executive-branch overreach, voted to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

"I'm supportive of the House bill and I think it will go a long way to fixing the problem," Paul said, according to Breitbart.

The Kentucky senator's position on the immigration measure matters a great deal for his own putative presidential campaign. Paul has made a much-publicized push to broaden the GOP's appeal to racial minorities. At the same time, he is trying to win the support of hard-line conservatives who dominate the nominating process. In this case, he has apparently decided the latter is more important.

But his interview Thursday matters more for what it says about the relationship between the GOP's congressional branch and its field of presidential hopefuls. The would-be leaders like Paul aren't setting their own agendas; instead, they're being forced to react to the actions of Republican congressmen. And in most cases—with their eyes locked firmly on the GOP primary—they shy away from disagreeing with a legislative body that best reflects the collective will of the party's conservative bloc.

That's a problem for a party that just two years ago was convinced it needed to win over voting blocs like racial minorities, women, and young people—all of whom it underperformed with in 2012. Most of the House GOP's actions, coming from members whose main threat comes not from a general election but a primary, reflect a far different set of electoral incentives than those that confront candidates seeking national office.

Repealing DACA, for example, brandishes a Republican's claim in his or her own district to hold the president accountable, but in a presidential race it threatens to alienate Latino voters who constitute an ever-larger share of the vote in battlegrounds like Colorado, Florida, and Nevada. It's no coincidence that in one of the few midterm-election battlegrounds whose electorate mirrors the country's, the Republican Senate candidate, Rep. Cory Gardner, voted "no" on the measure.

And now that Paul has staked out a position on immigration, pressure will grow on his potential rivals to follow suit. It's a familiar situation for Republicans: During the last primary, the House GOP voted almost unanimously in favor of politically tricky measures like the Ryan budget or defunding Planned Parenthood.

Before long, those positions had become standard-issue among all of the Republican presidential contenders—including the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.

It's a process Republican strategists openly fret about. And with three months before the midterm elections even end, it's already starting to happen.