Republicans are divided on how to handle both the Voting Rights Act and immigration, two politically-charged issues where the views of their base may not align with the minority voters the GOP wants to attract to win in future elections, particularly in 2016.
The passage in the Senate on Thursday of an immigration bill that creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers currently living the U.S., along with the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a key plank of the Voting Rights Act, leaves the Republicans grappling with two issues on which the party’s leadership is not united. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the No. 2 Republican in the House, has urged the GOP to work with Democrats on a updated version of the VRA, but many Republican senators, particularly from the South, say the law is simply outdated and its requirement for pre-clearance of voting laws by some states and localities should not be revived.
The division on immigration is much deeper, with prospective Republican presidential hopefuls like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) arguing that the bill is an imperative for the party, but many House members and party activists strongly opposed.
Democrats and President Obama support the immigration legislation and new provisions to ensure voting rights and are likely to sharply attack the GOP in next year’s elections and in 2016 if they oppose both efforts, looking to keep in the party’s huge advantage among minority voters.
“There’s no question our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, beginning with securing our border before moving forward with other aspects of reform. Unfortunately, the legislation that passed today does not take that necessary step,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who was one of 32 Republican senators who opposed the legislation. Only 13 Republicans backed it.
The divide among Republicans reflects a broader debate within the party. Many party strategists say projecting a more positive image to minority voters, particularly Latinos, is essential, as it would not only help the GOP court minorities but also white women and people under 30 who are currently wary of the party’s image as a party for older, white male voters. About 80 percent of non-white voters backed President Obama in 2012, and that bloc could be 30 percent of the electorate by 2016.
But Republicans officeholders, particularly in the House, are more worried about protecting their own jobs than making it easier for a prospective Republican to win in 2016. And for next year’s House elections, backing an immigration bill hated by many conservatives would increase the chances of an incumbent Republican House member facing a challenge in a primary.
And some party strategists, notably Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, argue that Republicans don’t necessarily have to gain among more minority voters to win future elections. In a recent article, Kristol referred to a piece by Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende, who described how Republicans could win in 2016 if the black vote goes back to its pre-Obama patterns (lower turnout and a bit less Democratic-leaning) and Republicans grab an ever-larger share of the white vote.
“If African-Americans had comprised 11 percent of the electorate in 2012, and Republicans had won 10 percent of the African-American vote, Obama’s victory margin would have been one point instead of four, even with everything else staying the same,” Trende writes.