The optimism accompanying U.S. Senate passage of a comprehensive immigration reform package — including a so-called path to citizenship — has given way to the realities of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives where the mantra of the majority is clear: "no amnesty." Texas public opinion data provides a microcosm — albeit a big one — of how the House’s likely intransigence on immigration reform reflects the public opinion landscape that GOP House members will face during the 2014 election season.
While the Senate bill passed by a comfortable margin, the characteristics of the 32 members who rejected it were telling: All were Republicans, mostly from Southern and Midwestern states. While these members don’t represent a majority in the Senate, they do represent a majority of the Republican conference (68 percent).
It’s unlikely that House Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team will be able to count on a majority of Republicans either, including the 24 from Texas. Thus, he is struggling to balance the short-term political consequences of once again violating the so-called Hastert rule, the long-term interests of his party and, of course, his own interest in remaining speaker (though we increasingly wonder why he would want the job). Needless to say, the beleaguered speaker is in another tough spot — increasingly the hallmark of his tenure.
Public opinion in Texas, and particularly among Texas primary voters, sheds light on Boehner’s dilemma. As we’ve written previously about Texas’ unique position in the immigration reform debate, the state’s burgeoning Hispanic population has had far greater pull on the Texas GOP than on its counterparts in states like North Carolina, Indiana and Alaska (all with Hispanic populations below 10 percent).
Texas is also a cornerstone of the national Republican Party due to its size, financial resources and stable of candidates looking to make the jump to the next level (see Rick Perry and Ted Cruz), which also adds to its influence in the national GOP conversation about how to tip the electoral scales at the presidential level.
And yet, Cruz and Cornyn both strongly opposed the immigration bill in the Senate. Their actions, while seemingly out of step with the GOP’s long-term interests and the relatively moderate position of all Texas voters on immigration, make perfect sense when looking at the opinions of the GOP primary electorate. As in other policy areas (like some gun control proposals), that overall appearance of moderation masks extreme positions in one or both parties. GOP primary voters remain very conservative regarding immigration reform.
The long public debate on immigration reform and the future of the GOP has had little moderating impact on Texas Republicans' attitudes toward the subject. We have repeatedly asked whether they support comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, and Texas Republican attitudes have remained fixed. Between our February 2012 and our June 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls, Republicans have remained consistently opposed to comprehensive immigration reform, at approximately 65 percent. Maybe more importantly, opposition among Tea Party supporters in our most recent poll was 74 percent, a number at the forefront of the minds of Texas Republicans in Congress as they consider which way to vote.
Whether those Republicans come to accept arguments that immigration reform is in the long-term interest of their party is a matter of speculation. But consideration of their short-term concerns will likely be informed by polling that shows GOP primary voters are skeptical of immigration reform and also that those voters place a high premium on the issues of immigration and border security.
As we recently wrote, Texas Republicans consistently cite immigration and border security as the most important problems facing the state over the life of the UT/Texas Tribune Poll. In Congress, Texas Republicans’ votes on immigration reform will send important signals — to the House's other members, to voters and, probably most importantly, to potential primary opponents who pay attention to the issue.
Texas Republican voters’ attention to short-term considerations will probably sway the votes of Texans in the House — and the decisions of many other representatives in other states facing similarly disposed GOP primary voters.
Tribune pollster Jim Henson directs 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.