Rob Horowitz: Newt Bucks the Conservative Tide On Immigration

Monday, November 28, 2011


At the CNN Republican Presidential Candidate National Security Debate last week, Former Speaker Newt Gingrich stood up and bucked the harsh anti-immigration tone of the nomination contest saying it was inconsistent with Republican values.

“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century,” Gingrich said. He emphasized that he was not talking about granting citizenship, but was committed to figuring out a way to provide legality to immigrants who originally may have come her illegally, but have since built families and become hard-working and constructive members of the community.

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Instead of falling all over himself to back track as he has done on other issues, Gingrich doubled-down on his immigration stance this past weekend in Florida, saying “ I am for a path to legality for people whose ties are so deeply in America that it could be truly tragic to rip their family apart.”

The nearly universal reaction of the punditocracy is that Gingrich had wounded his candidacy by taking a position that could be equated as amnesty just as he was emerging as the leading opponent to frontrunner Mitt Romney. This position, according to most of the talking heads, would be badly received by Republican caucus and primary voters who generally strongly support a hard line on immigration. Many commentators pointed out the hit Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) took over his support for granting in-state college tuition to qualified children of illegal immigrants in Texas.

Gingrich’s Republican primary opponents wasted no time in attacking him on the issue, with both Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) hitting him on it during the debate and continuing the attacks throughout the week.

While the jury is certainly out on how Gingrich’s position will ultimately be received, it may serve him better than the conventional wisdom believes.

Unlike Perry, Gingrich has articulately expressed and defended his position, using examples of hard-working and religious members of the community -- a move that may resonate with the GOP's evangelical base. It will also make it more difficult for all voters to just check the illegal immigrant box without considering the real human costs and impacts. Governor Perry, on the other hand, failed to present a coherent rationale for his support of the Texas policy of granting in-state tuition to qualified children of undocumented parents..

Further, Gingrich may actually have established himself as politically courageous and willing to stand his ground -- a move that distinguishes him from Romney who Gingrich criticizes as not a real conservative and more of a manager than a leader. Gingrich also provides assurance to the Republican establishment and donor class-- who have serious doubts about his viability as a general election candidate,-- that he can emerge as the candidate best positioned to go after the critically important Latino vote in the general election and to potentially appeal broadly to independents.

The harsh anti-immigrant tone of the primaries is a major concern of most of the top Republican strategists and party operatives because they realize that it can be a big impediment to winning in the fall. In the 2008 Presidential election, nearly one-in-ten votes were cast by Latinos. This time Latinos will be an even higher percentage of the vote. Latinos are also concentrated in important swing states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida.

While the other elements of Gingrich’s immigration policies remain hard-line, this particular component of his policy returns him to the more inclusive approach of Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan--an approach that made Republicans competitive with Latinos and one that appeals to the broad center of the electorate. And to give the Former Speaker his due, he deserves much credit for taking a political risk for a more sensible, humane and economically smart approach to the hot-button issue of immigration.

Of course, how it all plays out, will soon be in the hands of Republican caucus and primary voters beginning January 3rd in Iowa. It will be fascinating to watch.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

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