After the Republican Party’s losses in the 2012 general election, the Republican National Committee convened an “autopsy” of the results to determine how to improve the Party’s chances in 2016. One of the clearest findings was that the GOP’s relationship with the Hispanic portion of the electorate was poor and getting worse, due in large part to a perceived anti-Hispanic bias articulated thorough draconian immigration enforcement proposals.
The answer seemed obvious: moderate the tone, recognize the bad feelings created by anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric, and produce humane policies that can be sold to the GOP base without alienating the nation’s fastest-growing segment of voters.
That, of course, didn’t account for the rise of Donald Trump, the real estate mogul and former reality television star whose virulent attacks on illegal immigrants as rapists and criminals have sent him rocketing to the top of the polls in the GOP presidential primary.
Trump’s success has changed the dynamic for many members of the crowded GOP primary field, and now the candidates seem to be gradually dividing themselves into camps: those aligning themselves with all or part of Trump’s maximalist positions (mass deportation, amending the Constitution to do away with birthright citizenship guaranteed by the 14th amendment, and walling off the southern border) and those who favor less draconian responses to immigration.
“It’s really a sad day for the Republican Party when someone like Donald Trump can drag the party around on issues where the country needs serious solutions,” said Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, which advocates for illegal immigrants.
Vargas said that the undocumented community and the large number of citizens who support them have become increasingly disenchanted with the Democratic Party’s inaction on issues important to Hispanics, leaving an opening the GOP is failing to exploit.
“No party has actually locked in the Latino vote,” Vargas said. But what’s disappointing to Hispanic voters is that, so far at least, “No one has set their foot down and said, ‘Enough,’” to Trump. Instead of working to win over Hispanic voters, Vargas said, “There is a huge civil war going on in the Republican Party.”
In fact, a number of candidates, including some in the top tier, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, have begun lining up behind the controversial billionaire.
Walker, in recent days, has come out in favor of ending birthright citizenship and building a massive border wall. Numerous others, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham have suggested they are open to it as well.
Others, particularly former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have pushed back against Trump. Bush has openly criticized the Trump deportation plan as unrealistic and unnecessary, and has blasted the billionaire’s “divisive” rhetoric. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Monday said that he opposed the idea of a constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship.
Republican candidates had no way of avoiding the issue of illegal immigration because of its importance to many in the Party’s base, said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. But latching on to highly controversial positions that put them at odds with many in the Hispanic community was probably not their preferred method.
“This is certainly not the way they wanted to have this discussion and they certainly didn’t want Donald Trump driving the bus on this issue, but all that’s out the window,” O’Connell said. He balked at the idea that there is some sort of civil war going on within the Party. Largely because there are not two clear sides.
“Not sure there are two camps,” O’Connell said. “Certainly there’s a Trump camp. But among the others there may be multiple camps.”
For instance, while Jeb Bush appears to occupy the point on the Republican spectrum furthest from Trump, O’Connell said, “I have a feeling that Rubio will be looking for something that’s a little more in the political middle ground between Bush and Trump.”
Prior to the Trump surge, there were a set of positions common to the GOP field. If embraced broadly, they could have prevented internecine battles over immigration. They included calls for stronger border enforcement, defunding of so-called “sanctuary cities” that don’t fully cooperate with U.S. immigration authorities, and the implementation of an “e-verify” system for checking workers eligibility for employment.
However, the opportunity to conduct a campaign in which all the GOP candidates appeared to be roughly on the same page with regard to immigration has gone by the boards, and each candidate will now be increasingly pressed to take specific positions on a variety of sensitive issues.
“Trump,” said O’Connell, “has forced their hand.”