As a member of the Gang of Eight, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham is one of the most prominent Republican proponents of comprehensive immigration reform. His motives are straightforward: For the GOP to stay competitive, it needs to make inroads with Latino voters. Creating a path to citizenship for existing immigrants—and smoothing the process for future ones—is the only way Republicans can begin to repair their relationship with a community that has been alienated by the party’s harsh—sometimes xenophobic—rhetoric on immigration.
Graham’s latest word on the subject was yesterday, on Fox News Sunday, where he warned Republicans of what would happen if they failed to get behind the comprehensive reform bill currently making its way through the Senate. “If it fails,” he said, “and [Republicans] are blamed for its failure, our party is in trouble with Hispanics; not because we are conservative but because of the rhetoric and the way we’ve handled this issue.”
Insofar that there are any points of agreement between me and Lindsay Graham, this is one of them. Latino voters don’t trust the Republican Party. Both because of their policies—hence President Obama’s three-to-one margin among Hispanics in last year’s election—and because of their rhetoric. According to a recent survey from Latino Decisions—a group that tracks and measures Latino public opinion—strongly worded statements against comprehensive immigration reform from Republican senators (in particular, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama) harm the party’s standing with HIspanic voters. As Latino Decisions explains, “The results demonstrate that there is no ‘distancing from the party’ when it comes to the immigration reform bill and associated position-taking. It is perfectly reasonable that Latino voters view elected officials as spokespeople for their party, and either reward or blame them in similar proportion.”
There’s no shortage of Republican voices speaking out against immigration reform. In addition to Cruz and Sessions, you have a wide variety of House Republicans who attack reform as either “amnesty,” a massive giveaway of government resources, or a plot to create more Democratic voters. Yes, there are—arguably—just as many Republicans pushing the bill and working to build support among their fellow-partisans. But on the whole, the GOP is associated with harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, of the kind you saw during its presidential nomination contest, where Mitt Romney (the eventual nominee) found support by running to the right of his opponents on immigration.
Over at the Washington Post, Greg Sargent argues—convincingly—that if the immigration bill fails to pass the House of Representatives, it will be because Republican leaders allowed the GOP base to kill the legislation. In which case, Lindsay Graham’s prediction is likely to bear itself out. Latino voters won’t blame “gridlock” or “Congress,” they’ll point their fingers at the Republican Party. And the GOP will see its already small share of the Latino vote diminish even further. In the short term, this shouldn’t be disastrous for the party’s political prospects. But it certainly doesn’t help.