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With Walker gone, GOP elites have to sell "amnesty" to a base that hates it

Scott Olson/Getty

For a Republican establishment frightened and bewildered by the rise of Donald Trump, Monday's news that Scott Walker would quit the presidential race came as a welcome relief. Walker's exit seems to make it easier for the party's elites to consolidate behind one of the remaining formidable mainstream contenders — generally agreed to be Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — and stop Trump.

But there's one lingering loose end that should keep the establishment up at night. Namely: with Walker gone, both remaining elite-preferred candidates have big problems with the GOP base on the very issue that propelled Trump to the top of the polls — unauthorized immigration.

As Dara Lind has long been writing, immigration is a particularly thorny issue in the GOP race, since it splits party elites from core conservative organizers and activists. Those elites strongly believe the GOP nominee needs to win Latino swing votes to carry the general election — and that moderating on immigration is the best way to do so. Meanwhile, the base deems any such moderation as "amnesty," and prefers hard-line rhetoric and policies.

And of the top contenders, only Walker was really trying to satisfy the base on immigration. Though his handling of the issue was a bit of a mess, overall, he was clearly to Bush and Rubio's right. Publicly, he kept insisting that he opposed "amnesty," saying outright that his view had "changed" on the issue. He even had some tough talk about legal immigration policies, saying they should be designed to protect American workers first.

It's true that Walker had flip-flopped, and there were reports he was saying different things in private. But his record, rhetoric, and policy proposals on immigration seemed like something conservative activists could live with.

Bush and Rubio are quite different. They're not merely pro-immigration — they've blatantly defied the base in ways that Walker hasn't.

Bush and Rubio are both seriously vulnerable on the right on immigration

Last year, Bush famously deemed unauthorized immigration "an act of love," which of course, starkly contrasts with Trump's portrayal of these immigrants as dangerous criminals. He's long been a supporter of immigration reform, and on the campaign trail, he's still openly pushing for a "path to legal status," arguing that "there is no plan to deport 11 million people." This is a straightforward refusal to concede to the party's right, and in fitting with Bush's stated belief that a GOP candidate should be willing to "lose the primary to win the general."

Rubio, meanwhile, was perhaps the most important Republican member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators who authored the 2013 Senate immigration reform bill. The gang's proposal would have created a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and it became intensely controversial on the right. Most have forgotten, but Rubio actually led national GOP presidential polls back in the first few months of 2013 — and he lost that lead when he became so closely identified with the Senate immigration bill.

It's clear that Rubio has seen this problem coming, and on the campaign trail this year, he's frequently refused to reiterate his past support for a path to citizenship. "You can't even have a conversation about that until people believe and know — not just believe, but it's proven to them — that future illegal immigration will be controlled and brought under control," he said in February. Still, like Hillary Clinton's Iraq war authorization vote in 2002, his record is tough to explain away.

All this means that if it starts to look like Bush or Rubio will be the nominee, conservative and Tea Party activists who strongly oppose legalization could be very resistant — in a way they might not have resisted Scott Walker. And that could make it very difficult for the party to get its way.

Can an immigration reformer still win a Republican presidential primary?

This year, Trump began his campaign by saying that "drug dealers," "rapists," "murderers," and "killers" were coming across American borders — and he soon shot to the front of GOP polls. Now, he's advocating for mass deportation and a border wall, and it seems like what he's saying is resonating with the party's base. And if Trump ends up collapsing, Ted Cruz — similarly hard-right on immigration — is positioning himself to pick up his supporters.

A pro-immigration reform position isn't necessarily a deal-breaker in a GOP presidential primary. John McCain managed to win with such a record in 2008 (though he did move to the right on the issue during the primary). And polling tends to show that a majority of Republican voters support a path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants (though big GOP majorities also call immigrants a burden on the country and say we should have less immigration).

But the issue has only gotten more difficult for the GOP to handle since then. In the 2011-'12 presidential race, Mitt Romney savvily used it to undercut Rick Perry's credibility among conservatives, attacking him during a debate for offering in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrant children. But party elites concluded that Romney went too far when he supported "self-deportation." More recently, in 2014, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor shockingly lost his primary to a little-known challenger who had attacked him for supposedly supporting "amnesty." And, that same year, House Republican opposition to the Senate's immigration bill proved to be so intense that the party's leadership didn't end up bringing it to a vote.

Until yesterday, if conservative voters turned out to be dead-set against nominating a "pro-amnesty" candidate, GOP elites still had Walker as an option they could unite around to satisfy the right. Now, though, they really don't have anyone.