Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush incensed some in the Republican Party earlier this month after speaking candidly about what he believes motivates immigrants to risk their lives to cross the border illegally.
“It’s not a felony,” he said. “It’s an act of love.”
His statement has ripped open an old wound within the Republican Party, a schism that puts the GOP at a crossroads. Will Republican candidates adopt a softer stance on immigration reform in 2016 in order to court Latino voters and win the general election, or will Bush be left out on a limb all alone?
“They should be taking Jeb’s lead if they want to win in 2016,” says Lionel Sosa, a Republican strategist who has worked on Latino outreach for a series of presidential campaigns. “I just don’t know if we will see the Republican environment changing in the immediate future. We may need to lose another election to get it.”
Bush has faced fallout from the law-conscious Republican base, voters who would rather hear a potential primary candidate acknowledge the country is a nation of immigrants, but also a nation of laws. Yet, Bush has not backed down. Part of his gamble is the assumption that the Republican primary of 2016 is not going to look like 2012. Bush might face a backlash early on, but he is hardly sunk if he decides to dive into the race.
Most Republicans won’t make their decision about 2016 until later this year or in early 2015, but those who are often cited as potential candidates have been much more careful about the way they discuss immigration and Latino voters than the crew of candidates from 2012.
“Not only is the primary going to have a different tone in 2015, [but] if Republicans win the Senate, you might even see conservative members leading the charge on immigration reform,” says Alfonso Aguilar, a GOP strategist. “This idea that you have to move to the extreme right on immigration to win the primary in 2016 is bunk and nobody buys it.”
Take Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who voted against the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill last June. Paul might not have agreed with giving immigrants a path to citizenship. Yet, he has been among the most vocal advocates for Latino outreach in the Republican Party. He said last year immigrants who came to the country illegally, but who are also law-abiding workers, should have the opportunity to obtain legal status – a far cry from the “self deportation” language articulated from the podiums of GOP candidates in 2011 and 2012. Even over the weekend, Paul was careful not to decry Bush’s stance on immigration, saying instead that perhaps he “might have been more artful” in his articulation.
Perhaps the greatest hard-liner on immigration in 2016 will be tea party firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the son of an immigrant.
On a Republican debate stage, Bush could also go head-to-head with fellow Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio, who was part of the bipartisan "gang" of senators who helped usher a comprehensive immigration bill through the Senate that included a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally.
“Bush’s comment is not a game changer. It doesn’t eliminate him because there is a chunk of the Republican Party who is not going nuts over this. There is a chunk looking for the solution here,” says Steffen Schmidt, a Latino voter expert at Iowa State University.
The structure of the Republican primary season in 2016 also lends itself to more moderation. Unlike the GOP circus of 2012 when Republicans held more than 20 debates, the Republicans running in 2016 will have fewer opportunities to jockey to the right.
The long primary season leading up to 2012 gave candidates running for the White House a long leash to hang themselves as they tripped over who could look the most conservative on a laundry list of issues including immigration reform. No wall was long or tall enough, no number of border patrol agents was too many. As for the 11 million immigrants who had entered into the country illegally and were living in the shadows, candidates on stage encouraged them to self deport.
In 2012, Republicans running for the White House piled on Texas Gov. Rick Perry for his support of a state program that gave some of the children who came here illegally in-state tuition at Texas colleges.
Candidates on the debate stage from tea party darling Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota to moderate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accused Perry of creating a “magnet” that encouraged more and more immigrants to break the law and cross the border.
An exasperated Perry, governor of the state with a 1,200-mile border, and a man who knew about the border fences and the people who crawl over them, dug in his spurs.
“If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said, staring dead pan into an audience of boos.
That’s no longer the party line for Republicans. Even in the House of Representatives where immigration reform hangs in the balance, the leadership recognizes the time has come to not only soften the party’s tough-enforcement rhetoric, but also to develop a blueprint for how to fix the country's broken system. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, released his principles for reform earlier this year.
Nowhere on that plan is self deportation prescribed.
His framework for immigration reform included a path to legal status for the 11 million immigrants who had entered the country illegally and broke the law to be here. The plan was not quite as generous as the one passed by the Senate, which put those immigrants on a path to citizenship, but it was a far more aggressive start then what Republicans clamoring for the White House in 2012 put forward.
In an election year, Boehner has stopped pushing for immigration reform, but it is still part of the consciousness for Republicans on Capitol Hill.
There is growing support for a version of the DREAM Act, which would give young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, a visa to stay in the U.S.
There are certainly still immigration hard-liners in the Republican Party. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., are not going to soften their stance. This past weekend, Donald Trump appeared to be the most critical of Bush and he found many who agree with him during a tea party event. He got a big laugh for suggesting immigrants come for sex, but not for love.
But the Republican Party might not be laughing in 2016 if it fails to field a candidate that can make up what’s been lost between the Republican Party and the Latino community. If the Republican Party wants to do better than the 27 percent of the Latino vote it got with Romney in 2012, it will need to take seriously the words of a candidate who won 56 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2002 re-election bid to be the governor of Florida – a major swing state to boot.
“Republicans are tired of losing the White House and they are looking harder for a winning candidate,” says Schmidt. “Jeb Bush could bring the Hispanic and Latino voters back to the Republican Party.”