Republican strategists are encouraged by how the GOP has turned the corner on tone and substance when it comes to wooing Hispanic voters, particularly when it comes to immigration reform following the 2012 election.
After suffering a disappointing result, particularly among Hispanic voters who broke strongly for President Barack Obama, Republican Party officials and lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have worked to change the conservative reputation as a bastion for old white men.
Whit Ayres, GOP pollster at North Star Opinion Research, says focus groups with conservative voters also show the party's base is more open to immigration reform than it was before the election.
"There's much more willingness to consider some form of reform than there was six months ago," he says. "A lot of Republicans are saying, now that Obama's won we know something's going to happen and we sure trust Marco Rubio more than Barack Obama to come up with something that we can live with."
Key tenets of any reform are border security, a penalty for people currently living in the United States illegally before obtaining legal status and not allowing those folks to jump ahead of legal immigrants looking for citizenship, Ayres says.
"People really wrestle with the right thing, the fair thing, the just thing to do that continues our tradition of being a nation of laws but recognizes the reality that there are 12 million people here who are not going anywhere," he says. "Since the election, I think thus far the GOP has handled it very well and part of that is due to the leadership of people like Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham and John McCain," he added, referring to the senior Republican senators from South Carolina and Arizona respectively, as well as the rising star from Florida.
The party's transformation – which marks a drastic shift from when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney preached a policy of "self-deportation" – comes at a key time in public opinion on the issue of immigration reform.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows 64 percent of Americans support a legal path to citizenship for those who are in the country illegally, though a slight majority of Republicans still oppose the idea.
But as with other hot button issues, sometimes public opinion polling outpaces lawmakers' support for policies. In this case, while Senate lawmakers are working in a bipartisan fashion to craft comprehensive immigration reform, the fate of any deal they hammer out will end in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans. House members, thanks to how their districts are created, often have more ideologically aligned voters to answer to than senators, who must represent their entire state. This means House Republicans tend to be more conservative and House Democrats more liberal than their Senate counterparts, potentially imperiling a Senate compromise.
Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network and a former George W. Bush White House official, says she is optimistic the House will get on board with a reform deal.
"Instead of that knee-jerk reaction about it we've seen in the past, you see conservatives being really thoughtful about a real solution," she says. "I think it'll be a little different because I think you'll see different pieces of legislation – but it will be a broad-based solution and that is what we've always favored, whether it's in one bill or in four bills as long as it addresses every component of immigration reform."
Ayres says the overall success of a package depends on the margin of passage in the Senate.
"It depends on the vote in the Senate – if the vote in the Senate is 51 to 49 then it is a completely different story if the vote in the Senate is 75 to 25," he says of the likelihood of House passage.
Meanwhile, other conservative groups have threatened to primary conservative lawmakers who vote for any legislation that could be construed as "amnesty" for fear it will encourage more illegal immigration and harm job opportunities for Americans.
The bipartisan 'gang of eight' senators working on a reform deal is expected to release their proposal early next week.
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