WASHINGTON -- The nation’s immigration debate has become an epic struggle between two of the nation’s most potent political forces, the growing, crucial Latino vote and the well-funded, highly motivated conservative movement.
It’s also caused a schism within the Republican Party, a divide with the potential to cause serious wounds.
The issue has shot to the top of concerns in the Hispanic community, where most voters say they know undocumented immigrants. For conservatives, last week’s Senate vote to enact comprehensive legislation was the latest evidence that government has become too bloated and intrusive.
“Like Obamacare, this bill is too massive, offers special-interest kickbacks and perks, has no measurable or enforceable border security. No one has had time to read what’s in it,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the Tea Party Patriots national coordinator.
Many Hispanics frame the issue much differently. “This is very, very personal,” said Matt Barreto, a top official at Latino Decisions, which researches Hispanic opinion. “Immigration has always been important, but this Congress has made it even more important.”
Fourteen Senate Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents to pass last week’s comprehensive legislation. Those Republicans now face strong criticism and threats of retaliation from the party’s powerful conservative bloc. The schism is a chilling prospect for Republican leaders, who see the party brand as losing favor with Latino voters.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney got an estimated 27 percent of the 2012 Hispanic presidential vote, and new polling shows that most prospective 2016 Republican candidates would fare just as poorly.
In 2014, the Latino vote might be decisive in at least five tossup Senate races. The fate of House of Representatives seats remains unclear, as the debate moves to that chamber next week. Republican leaders plan to meet with the rank and file July 10 to plot their next moves.
Conservatives are making it clear they dislike the Senate’s elaborate 13-year path to citizenship.
“It’s 10 to 1 in the calls against the (Senate) bill,” Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said of his constituents. “I don’t know why the people in the Senate are so hung up on this whole gotta-be-the-pathway-to-citizenship.”
Outside groups add to the pressure. The Senate Conservatives Fund has been dogging Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, telling its followers the Kentuckian’s “record on immigration is not a good one.”
McConnell faces re-election next year. Even though he voted no last week, the fund still blasted him, telling members in a memo that he’d “refused to use his position as the Republican leader to defeat the bill.”
Matt Hoskins, the fund’s executive director, vowed to work particularly hard against any Republican who voted yes. “We are actively looking for primary challenges to the three amnesty Republicans up in 2014, as well as others,” he said.
Conservatives dispute the notion that their stance will cost Republican Hispanic votes.
“I think we are actually sending the right message to the American people that we are tolerant but we are first a nation of laws,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a native of Puerto Rico. “They want to enforce the laws on the books, not start creating this atmosphere where we start encouraging people to break the laws.”
Chances are the three Republican senators who voted yes and are up for re-election next year will be safe from intraparty challenges: South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Maine’s Susan Collins.
Where immigration might have more impact is in the general election, where an energized Latino community is positioned to help elect Senate bill supporters. By November 2014, the Senate and House may well have agreed on compromise legislation, which might become an important litmus test for Latinos and conservatives.
Among the races that may be affected: open seats in Michigan, Georgia and Iowa, and Democratic-held seats in North Carolina and Arkansas.
The prize where more eyes are focusing is the 2016 presidential race. Last year, Hispanics were 8.4 percent of all voters, up from 7.4 percent in 2008.
Their votes arguably played important roles in key states. In Colorado, where Obama won with 51 percent, he outpolled Romney 3 to 1 among Hispanics, who were 14 percent of the vote. In Nevada, where Obama won 52 percent, his Latino total was 71 percent. Nineteen percent of the vote came from Hispanics.
Latino voters won’t forget the immigration debate. In a poll June 20-30, Latino Decisions found that nearly two-thirds of Latino registered voters knew undocumented immigrants, with most saying they were family members or friends.
Those voters showed a strong preference for Democratic candidates in hypothetical matchups. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton topped Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., 66-28 percent, and she beat 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin by 73 to 21 percent. Barreto estimated that Republicans need to get into the 38 to 42 percent range to have much impact.
The key uncertainty is turnout. Latino eligible-voter turnout last year was 48 percent, well below the figure for whites – 64.1 percent – and blacks – 66.6 percent – according to census data.
Strategists see the Latino vote as an untapped force, and immigration might well be the match that lights the fire. The poll found that 53 percent of Hispanic voters saw immigration as the community’s most important issue, with the economy and jobs a distant second at 28 percent.
Few dispute the issue’s significance, but neither side is budging from its view of how to fix the problem.
Secure the borders first, conservatives say, and stop expanding government. “This bill will embolden unelected bureaucrats, lessen accountability and make the government even bigger and more powerful than it already is,” the tea party’s Martin said.
Be careful with such views, Barreto warned: “If the House ends up looking extreme, they’re going to be in trouble.”