Immigration reform and the 2016 Republican primary season

The Republican establishment — or at least the large chunk of it that favors amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens — must be delighted that the two Republicans said to be the leading candidates for the 2016 presidential nomination both favor amensty and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. I’m referring, of course, to Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.

The establishment’s delight is understandable. But a closer look at how 2016 may play out provides an alternative perspective.

Keep in mind that most Republican voters do not favor a path to citizenship for illegals. Among all voters, polls typically find its support to be slightly above 40 percent. Among Republicans, it must be considerably lower.

What might this mean in a primary season where both leading Republican contenders support amnesty and a path to citizenship? For one thing, it means that conservatives are less likely to rally around the leading candidate the establishment plainly favors — Marco Rubio.

Stated differently, it means that, since politics abhors a vacuum, a strong third contender — one who opposes amnesty and a path to citizenship — will emerge. If a strong third contender who opposes amnesty has already emerged, he or she will be all the stronger.

Rand Paul’s chances would clearly be enhanced by the emergence of one or more strong candidates. It’s difficult to imagine him prevailing head-to-head against Rubio. But if the non-libertarian, pro-defense vote is split, Paul’s nomination doesn’t seem like such a long-shot. Paul’s nomination would not delight the Republican establishment, and I would be dismayed.

Paul, though, would not be the favorite in a three way race with Rubio and a credible third candidate who opposes a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. In that race, my money might well be on the third candidate.

Who might that candidate be? It might be Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Ron Johnson, or Ted Cruz. With the possible exception of Cruz, I think the establishment would be fine with all of the above.

But we don’t know whether any of them will run; nor, with the possible exception of Ryan, do we know how any of them would hold up during a primary campaign. In some cases, we also don’t know what position they would take on immigration reform.

This means that the credible alternative to Paul and Rubio might be a non-establishment type — Rick Santorum, for example. Santorum ran well in 2012, and could run better in a three-person race in which the other two leading candidates support a path to citizenship for illegals. A Santorum (or someone like him) who corners the social conservative market and the anti-amnesty/path to citizenship market could capture the nomination.

The establishment wouldn’t be happy, and I’m not sure I would be either. But this is the risk a political party runs when its leading lights disregard the strongly held views of a majority of its voters.

Responses