To understand the immigration conundrum that the GOP faces in the House, it’s important to understand just how rare it is for a Republican House member to represent a Latino district. There are 108 majority-minority districts in the United States. Republicans represent just nine of them. Redistricting in 2012 helped create a structural advantage for the Republicans in the House, but, as my colleague David Wasserman observed, in the process of “quarantining Democrats, Republicans effectively purged millions of minority voters from their own districts” creating an average Republican House district that is 75 percent white and an average Democratic House district that is 51 percent white. “In other words," Wasserman wrote, “while the country continues to grow more racially diverse, the average Republican district continues to get even whiter.”
Just 24 House Republicans represent a district where the Latino population is 25 percent or higher. Even more important is the fact that of those 24 districts, half (12) were carried by Mitt Romney by 20 points or more. Only four of these districts were carried by President Obama. And, 40 percent of these districts (10) are in Texas, where the state’s two Republican Senators are actively opposing the current parameters of the “Gang of Eight” bill.
In other words, a Republican incumbent from a district with significant Hispanic population is more likely to be representing a heavily Republican district than a swing or Democratic-leaning district.
GOP-Held Districts with Hispanic Population of 25% or Greater
For House Republicans, then, there is little short-term gain to supporting immigration legislation. It won’t make them any safer in a general election and instead may make them more vulnerable in a primary.
Even so, for all the hand-wringing about primary challenges, just four Republican incumbents have been defeated in primaries since 2010. While the Tea Party has made its mark in Senate primaries, they have not had the same kind of high-profile success in the House. But, trying to convince skittish House members not to worry about angering - or ignoring - their base is a tough sell.
Digging into the crosstabs of the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the Wall Street Journal’s Dante Chinni found that Republican support of the immigration reform is tepid at best. “Most of the Republican support of the immigration reform bill falls into the ‘somewhat favor’ category, that is to say their support likely comes with a few reservations. And there is a small enthusiasm gap on the GOP side as well. The number of Republicans who ‘strongly oppose’ the immigration reform bill is higher than the number that say they ‘strongly favor’ it.” Furthermore, writes Chinni, “the numbers look similar for other groups, such as white survey respondents – 63% favor the bill, but only 27% ‘strongly favor’ it.”
At its core, there is a very serious disconnect between the goals for national Republicans and those of the House Republicans. National Republicans understand that if they have any hope of winning the Electoral College in 2016, they need to do better among minority voters. House Republicans, meanwhile, are much more interested in holding their seats in 2014. Getting more support from Hispanic voters does little to nothing to help that.
When I ask Republican operatives what sort of incentive they can provide for House members to support an immigration bill, they reply that they are appealing to their sense of loyalty to party. Here’s something you can do “for the good of the party,” one of them told me. That may have been a reasonable request ten years ago. Today, with over 40 percent of the GOP conference elected since 2010, the idea of “taking one for the team” is likely to fall flat. Most of these members ran to shake up Washington and have pledged to refuse to bow to party bosses.
Now that I am a parent, I appreciate more than ever the importance of incentive in encouraging or discouraging certain behaviors. And, self-preservation is the biggest incentive there is. If you can’t give someone a reason why this behavior is ultimately going to help more than hurt, the behavior won’t happen. To be sure, there are plenty of House Republicans who represent mostly white districts who are quite aware of the challenges for the national party. That said, just six Republicans voted against an anti-DREAM ACT amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve King last week. That suggests that it’s going to take more than just talk of being a “good soldier” to get House GOPers to go along with comprehensive immigration reform.