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The Polling Center: The GOP's Sticky Immigration Problem

A proposed federal immigration reform poses a test for Texas Republicans: Their leaders, compared to politicians from other states, tend to be more moderate. But those leaders stand at the front of a GOP that is hostile to some of the proposal's key points.

El Paso, Texas

The early headlines announcing the immigration reform push in the U.S. Senate trumpeted the bipartisan flavor of the border security/earned citizenship two-step upon which this latest approach is based. But the immediate pushback within the GOP makes it appear that, like an increasing number of issues, two partners is not enough — legislative success may well require something akin to tripartisanship. The Republican establishment, convinced that cooperation with Democrats is a necessary evil if immigration is to be removed from the table, also finds itself needing to somehow convince the right wing of its own party that compromise on immigration is necessary for the long-term good of the GOP.

Public opinion polls in Texas on immigration issues suggest that this will be a rough slog. Texas political leaders sometimes surprise national audiences with their moderate stands, at least compared to immigration hawks like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer — as Rick Perry discovered in a Republican presidential primary debate in Florida where he was vigorously booed for his defense of the Texas law providing in-state tuition for the children of some illegal immigrants. Different as Texas may be from the rest of the country, differences within the Texas GOP could foreshadow revolt over a compromise on immigration.

While GOP elites fret over future Latino voters, the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll has repeatedly shown over the last three years that immigration matters to the Republican voting base, and that a significant faction of that base holds attitudes at odds with the spirit and facts of the deal currently in the air in Washington. In the most recent of those polls, 17 percent of Republicans chose immigration as the most important problem facing the state of Texas. Fully 30 percent of those self-identified as Tea Party Republicans think that it’s the most important problem. Similarly, when we last asked respondents their attitudes toward a comprehensive immigration reform package including a pathway to citizenship for those currently residing in the country, 58 percent of mainline Republicans and 73 percent of Tea Party Republicans opposed the proposal (and 54 percent of those tea partiers “strongly opposed” it). Therefore, any member of Congress hoping to go unnoticed on immigration reform should subtract the Tea Party as a key element of their electoral coalition.

The voices within the GOP asking for outreach and moderation have tended to come from the establishment, such as Jeb Bush and Michael Steele, and not from those seeking immediate reelection. Amongst the latter group, there is much fear. While the country is becoming increasingly diverse, geographic segregation and increasingly sophisticated redistricting strategies mean that many members are not forced to accommodate the wishes of voters outside their district lines. This distinction within the Republican Party is what is driving the aforementioned divisions.

It is too soon to tell how the Senate proposal will fare in the U.S. House, or if legislation will pass despite dissent, leaving discontent to simmer until the next primary season. But there is discontent. It took little time this week for the Democrats and institutional Republicans taking the lead on immigration reform to feel the pushback from the right. As Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, according to a transcript on his website, “I don't know that there's any stopping this. It's up to me and Fox News, and I don't think Fox News is that invested in this.”

Back on the Texas front, freshly minted Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, doubly cast as a Hispanic success story and an avatar of the power of the Tea Party-powered conservative grass roots, released a statement expressing “deep concerns with the proposed path to citizenship.” He continued, “To allow those who came here illegally to be placed on such a path is both inconsistent with rule of law and profoundly unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who waited years, if not decades, to come to America legally.” In his opening response, at least, Cruz has chosen to dance with them what brung him, as the saying goes. In doing so, he reminds everyone of the distinctions within the Republican Party that got him elected. (As recently as last week, one could find David Dewhurst at a TribLive event explaining his primary loss to Cruz by saying, “we failed to turn out our voters.” (emphasis added) No one in the room of insider observers had any doubt who he meant by that.)

Texans’ attitudes toward immigration provide the perfect vehicle for taking a closer look at what is driving divisions within the GOP. While the Lone Star State is reliably Republican, polling reveals a rift within the party among those who are more inclined to support the Tea Party and those who consider themselves to be Republicans.

In order to make the distinction in the UT/TT poll, we ask respondents whether, given a hypothetical election for Congress, they would support a Democratic candidate, a Republican candidate or a Tea Party candidate. We believe that this question gauges Tea Party support quite well as respondents who might (and probably would) otherwise support the Republican Party instead express potential support for a Tea Partier. From this question, we can classify a respondent as a Republican or a Tea Party Republican.

So, where does each group come down on their attitudes toward immigrants and immigration? Tea Party Republicans are consistently more restrictive on issues related to benefits for immigrants, and more skeptical of the contributions of immigrants. The October 2012 UT/TT Poll results suggest that the GOP base might require some convincing to embrace the reforms under discussion.

Beyond their view that immigration is a problem facing the state, Republicans are critical of the in-state college tuition provisions that earned the governor heckles at that Tampa debate. When asked, 66 percent of mainline Republicans believe that this group should pay higher out-of-state tuition, while fully three-quarters of Tea Party Republicans prefer out-of-state tuition.

There is a similar divide in each group’s attitudes toward the contribution of immigrants in the state. While 43 percent of Tea Party Republicans disagree with the statement, “newcomers from other countries enrich Texas with their hard work and values,” only 32 percent of Republicans do. When asked whether immigrants pay their fair share of taxes, Tea Party Republicans are less likely to agree (18 percent to 24 percent).

One shouldn’t overestimate the depth of these divisions. When matters turn to enforcement, both groups of Republicans agree that state and local police should be permitted to inquire about or report on the immigration status of individuals that they come across — an echo of the infamous Arizona law — and large majorities of each group agree that we should do more to restrict and control people coming into the U.S. than we do now. For that matter, 67 percent of Democrats also agree that we should limit immigration more forcefully, but — and this is a big but — only 4 percent of Democrats think that it’s the most important problem facing the state.

It all adds up. While Cruz’s Tea Party-powered victory over Dewhurst underlined the power of that particular group in Texas, it also foretold some of the difficulties of governing in such an environment. As Perry found out in Tampa, immigration strikes a nerve with the conservative wing of his party. Voters on the far right seem more likely to follow Rush Limbaugh, and perhaps Cruz, into opposition to any deal offering what is already being vilified as “amnesty”. Their numbers may not be sufficient to stop a deal that has powerful support from the GOP establishment, but in Texas, of all places, battles lost have a way of becoming rallying points in longer wars.

Tribune pollster Jim Henson heads the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin; Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.

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