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Scott Walker keeps getting caught saying one thing in private on immigration, and another in public

Show us the long-form call records!
Show us the long-form call records!
Ethan Miller/Getty

Scott Walker is trying to distinguish himself from the rest of the Republican field by running to their right on immigration — in addition to saying that he opposes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, he's voicing concern that legal immigration could threaten American jobs.

But Walker appears to have a recurring problem. News stories keep coming out about him saying things in private that are to the left of the immigration stances he espouses in public. And then Walker and his campaign keep saying the stories are wrong.

It's somewhat expected that Republican candidates are going to shift to the right during a primary campaign, even when that means flip-flopping away from earlier positions. But given that Walker has gotten into two he said/she said controversies in the past four months, it looks like he might be trying to pull a quantum flip-flop: holding one position in public for GOP primary voters, and another in private for GOP wonks and donors.

If so, he has the twisted Republican politics of immigration to thank. Republican elites are pro-immigration. Republican activists aren't. Candidates don't just need to worry about getting through the primary without saying anything that's going to sink them with Latino voters in the general election — they need to worry about how to get through the primary. If a candidate's immigration stance alienates donors, he'll have trouble keeping his campaign viable through state primaries in early 2016. If it alienates voters, he won't have a campaign left to save.

Did Stephen Moore really lie about Walker's immigration stance to the New York Times?

On July 2, in an article by Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin of the New York Times, a Heritage Foundation think-tanker named Stephen Moore (who supports immigration reform) said he'd been reassured by Walker that his rightward swing on immigration was temporary. According to Moore, Walker said, "I'm not going nativist. I'm pro-immigration." Then on July 6, Moore reached out to the Times and told them he was wrong — that the call with Walker had never happened at all.

And this is actually the second time this has happened. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported Walker had told donors at a private dinner in New Hampshire that he was a "no to citizenship [for unauthorized immigrants] now, but later they could get it" (in the words of one attendee). A Walker spokesperson denied the report, and said that Walker "does not support citizenship for illegal immigrants" — which was actually a more explicit position on the question than he'd taken before.

Or was Walker just another GOPer trying to reassure elites he's not an immigration hard-liner?

There is no reason to believe that Stephen Moore, the Heritage economist, lied to the New York Times about talking to Scott Walker when he hadn't. Moore is a respected figure within the GOP — and one that many Republican candidates are reportedly courting.

The best perspective on this comes from Republican communications strategist Liz Mair:

Mair has an inside perspective on Scott Walker's walk-backs — she was one herself. In March, Mair was hired to the Walker campaign — then was forced to resign the next day, due to conservative outrage over some earlier tweets Mair had written making fun of Iowa. (Another reason conservatives wanted Mair out? Her support for immigration reform.)

All Republican candidates are struggling with the donor/voter divide on immigration, but Walker is unusually bad at finessing it

But it doesn't take an insider to recognize the dynamic going on here: Republican elites and Republican grassroots activists are totally at odds on the issue of immigration, and Republican candidates are struggling to find a way to please both groups. Many Republican donors and interest groups support legalizing unauthorized immigrants. But the most vocal segments of the Republican base — the people who show up to town hall after town hall in Iowa and New Hampshire — are absolutely dead set against it. Republican donors in the business community have a strong financial stake in expanding legal immigration to expand the hiring pool. But expanding legal immigration isn't nearly as popular among Americans as a whole — especially among the older, white Americans who make up the Republican base.

Most Republican candidates are threading this needle by saying as little as possible about immigration in public. They might say they oppose "amnesty" (which means nothing), or they'll say that nothing can be discussed until the border is secure (which is an easy way to shut down a conversation, since no one can agree what a secure border looks like). Candidates with long records on immigration, like Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham, are leaning into the issue: If they can't persuade voters they agree with them, the thinking goes, they should at least persuade voters they're sincere.

Walker has made this particularly tough on himself: Attacking legal immigration, which Republican donors strongly support, separates him from the pack in a bad way in donors' eyes. And with donors already suspicious that Walker actually believes what he says on culture-war issues like same-sex marriage, this was probably not a great fight to pick. But Walker is hardly the only candidate trying to figure out how to avoid pissing off either donors or primary voters on immigration. He's just the one whose failures have been most public.