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National Politics|By Amy Walter, July 22, 2013

Although many have declared the prospect for immigration reform in the House DOA, one high-profile Republican organization, the American Action Network (AAN), sees a pathway – albeit a narrow one – for success. The key is to meet House members and GOP primary voters where they are, instead of trying to push them to where many think they should be.  In other words, stop lecturing House members on demographic “death spirals” and doomed 2016 elections, and start focusing on a buy-in that addresses their specific concerns.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is also a strategy with which House Speaker John Boehner is quite familiar and comfortable. In an interview with CBS News’ Bob Scheiffer this weekend, Speaker John Boehner conceded that passing immigration reform depends not on his ability to twist arms, but to “facilitate a process” and allow the House to “work its will.”

AAN prides itself as a group that understands the unique beast that is the House of Representatives. The group’s political director, Brian Walsh, served as political director of the NRCC and its communications director, Dan Conston, served as a top staffer to Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam.

AAN argues that it takes a different strategy to get a bill through the House than it did to get the Gang of Eight bill through the Senate.

“We knew we wanted to play a big role in this debate [on immigration],” Conston told me, “and we knew the House would be a different animal. Different memberships, constituencies and motivating factors.”

To help “educate” House Republicans, AAN commissioned a national poll which has been distributed to House leadership.  Said Conston, the goal of the poll is to take “an honest look at what is the art of the possible in the House.’

“It is a delicate path, “says Conston,  “but there is an opportunity.”

Conducted by the Tarrance Group (June 24-27 of 1,000 likely GOP primary voters) the poll purposely omitted blue states like Connecticut, New Jersey, Vermont, Washington, and New York. The goal isn’t to create the “perfect” sample of GOP voters, but an attempt to show conservative House members that they understand the kind of audience those members need to win over – namely red state conservatives that vote in GOP primaries.

Seeking to assure Republicans that there is indeed an appetite among GOP voters for immigration reform, the AAN memo states that a majority (51 percent) favor passage of “generic comprehensive immigration reform,” while just 26 percent oppose. The support number isn’t all that impressive. But, it is noteworthy that the opposition is not as solid as many have thought.

However, the poll also found the Senate Gang of Eight bill and a pathway to citizenship to be non-starters for GOP primary voters. Seventy-six percent of GOP voters have heard of the Senate proposal and a “majority of these Republicans (53%) are already opposed to it. Moreover, while 59 percent of Republicans favor an “earned pathway to legal status”, just 49 percent support an “earned pathway to citizenship.”

But, instead of as dooming chances for a bill in the House, Conston argues that the unpopular Senate bill actually gives House Republicans “an opportunity to chart a different path and establish a different level of credibility” with Republican primary voters.  

The biggest impediment to getting a bill through the House, says one GOP insider, is that Republicans simply don’t trust Obama to implement it. There’s also real concern about voting for something that will ultimately be labeled “Obama’s immigration” bill. That tag is an absolute killer in a GOP primary.  The best way to get buy-in of conservatives is to set defined metrics that prevent, in the words of one GOP strategist, Obama “screwing with” it. And, then sell those metrics – hard.

The memo also urges Republicans to stay focused on “pillars” that are popular with the base like E-verify, border security, and pathway for earned legal status.  

Will this strategy work? The answer is still very murky. There’s still a very big motivation gap for most House members. After all, passage of a bill will have no short-term political gain (or loss) for most members. Plus, there’s zero chance that the House will pass a bill that Obama or Senate Democrats will like. But, punting on the issue won’t make it going way. Instead, doing nothing on immigration means the GOP will be defined by their fringe (i.e., the Steve King’s of the world) instead of by their core.