As the 2016 presidential election finally, mercifully circles the drain, early returns are showing a surge in Latino voting that should brace Republicans. No matter what happens on Election Day, the party is in for a painful reckoning over its governing vision. And the debate over immigration reform awaits as perhaps the most explosive facing the GOP’s warring factions.
Following President Obama’s 2012 reelection, the party’s official autopsy threw in with the pragmatists who wanted to forge a comprehensive package beefing up border security while also creating a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers already here. “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only,” it read.
That assessment came after an election in which Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, tacked right on immigration to navigate a crowded primary field, along the way calling for undocumented workers to “self-deport.” In the general election, he won only 27% of the Latino vote, a steep decline from the 44% that comparatively reform-friendly George W. Bush won in 2004. Now just four years later, Trump looks on track to pull just half the support Romney earned from the demographic. And that performance will amount to an even heavier drag on his prospects, thanks to what appears to be record Latino turnout already materializing across the map.
On a press call Friday, for example, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said more Latinos have taken advantage of early voting in Florida than voted in the entire election there four years ago. And a similar groundwell appears to be driving early turnout in Nevada, defying polling models that showed a tighter race there. Nationally, several projections by outside groups suggest the Latino vote could roughly double as a share of the total electorate from 6% in 2004 to 12% this year.
So will Congressional Republicans find the will to take on comprehensive immigration reform next year? If nothing else, it would mark an important first step in stanching the bleeding that Trump and his border wall-focused bid wreaked with an increasingly critical voting bloc. But don’t count on it. The reason comes down to the difference between what it takes to win a national election versus stitching together enough seats to secure a Congressional majority. In the 2012 election, thanks to districts redrawn by Republican state legislatures, the GOP won 54% of House seats despite earning only 49% of the vote overall. And the proliferation of safe Republican seats means incumbents have more to fear from a primary challenge—say, by an upstart staking out an even harder line against immigration reform—than from a Democrat in the general election.
“The boost in Hispanic voter registration might impact a handful to a dozen Republican-held districts over the long term,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. “But I don’t think it’s going to be sweeping across districts everywhere to cause a fundamental shift in the Republican stance.”
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In the Senate, of course, candidates compete on the same map that determines presidential contests. But if Clinton wins and Democrats net just the four seats they need to snatch back control of the upper chamber on Tuesday, a very plausible outcome, there’s reason to believe the victory could be short-lived. In that scenario, the parties would each claim 50 seats, with a Vice President Tim Kaine casting the tie-breaking vote.
A special election to replace Kaine in the Senate looms next November in Virginia, raising the possibility that Republicans could win the seat and thereby reclaim the chamber less than a year into Clinton’s first term. And the picture gets brighter for Republicans in the 2018 midterms. Democrats will be defending 23 seats, while the GOP protects eight. Republicans are eyeing some of their best pickup opportunities in eight states, stretching from Virginia to Wisconsin, in which Latinos started the year making up less than 5% of the electorate.
So the immediate interests of Congressional GOPers look primed to frustrate the party’s longer-term ambition of winning national elections again. Call it a Republican self-deportation from the White House.