Can GOP Keep House in 2014 Without Comprehensive Immigration Reform?

By Tom K. Wong, Ph.D., tomkwong@ucsd.edu, @twong002

As Republicans prepare to meet to discuss how immigration reform will proceed in the House, Speaker John Boehner has maintained that he will adhere to the Hastert rule when it comes to immigration – in other words, he will not support any piece of legislation that does not have majority support among Republican representatives.

Much of this Republican caucus will involve discussions between House Republican leadership and the Republican rank-and-file over how immigration reform fits into the party’s short-term and long-term political prospects. Here, Republicans are at odds. On the one hand, Republican leadership will undoubtedly have an eye towards the future viability of the Republican brand – this includes the ability of Republicans to compete in national elections. On the other hand, many of the Republican rank-and-file may have an eye towards their own short-term electoral survival. Whereas the former may mean supporting comprehensive immigration reform, the latter may lead some within the Republican rank-and-file to oppose it.

For Republican leadership with an eye towards the viability of the party one of the most immediate concerns may be holding onto Republican control of the House in 2014. There are currently 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats in the House. This means that a Republican loss/Democratic gain of 17 seats will shift the balance of power. When viewed from this perspective the question that leadership should be asking, irrespective of the Hastert rule, is will opposition to immigration reform cost 17 seats in 2014?

To start, there are 33 Republican representatives who are expected to oppose an S.744-type of immigration reform bill, but who are electorally vulnerable headed into 2014. Taking a closer look at these 33 representatives, 18 are in competitive/swing districts. A Republican loss/Democratic gain of these 18 seats, all else equal (I know, all is rarely equal) means a Democratically-controlled House in 2014.

In comparing the districts of these 18 representatives with the districts of Republicans who are not electorally vulnerable and are in safe red districts, clear demographic differences emerge that magnify the salience and importance of supporting immigration reform.

First, we see that the Asian percentage of the total population is 2.2 times higher in these 18 districts than it is in safer Republican districts. This difference, 6.2% versus 2.8%, is highly statistically significant – in other words, the difference is not due to chance. We also see that the Hispanic/Latino percentage of the total population is 1.5 times higher. This difference, 14.6% versus 10.1%, is also statistically significant.

Electoral competition does not occur in a vacuum and, as some Republicans have suggested, increased outreach to white voters may attenuate the electoral effects of demographic change. However, when viewed from a different lens, we see even more striking differences. The average number of young Hispanics/Latinos and Asians who will come of voting age in 2014 is 1.7 times higher in these 18 districts than it is in safer Republican districts. This difference, 10,464 versus 6,171, is highly statistically significant. This trend continues when looking at the young Hispanic/Latino and Asian population who will come of voting age in 2016.

In fact, 6 representatives will see their total 2012 margin of victory eclipsed by the number of young Hispanics/Latinos and Asians who turn 18 in 2014.

In addition, 1 representative’s 2012 margin of victory will be eclipsed by the number of young Hispanics/Latinos and Asians who turn 18 in 2016 and 4 more representatives have young Hispanic/Latino and Asians populations that place their long-term electoral survival in doubtI note here that there are other Republicans who face similar outlooks, such as Representative David Valadao (CA-21). However, Valadao has expressed support for immigration reform.

Another group of Republican representatives is also worth mentioning. There are 10 representatives who are in traditionally safe Republican districts, but are electorally vulnerable and represent districts that are rapidly changing demographically.

It is yet unclear how Republicans will proceed on immigration. However, it seems clear that the approach that Republicans take and, perhaps more importantly, whether they are perceived as working towards or standing in the way of reform, will have serious implications in the districts identified above.  

Tom K. Wong, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at UC San Diego. He is an expert on immigration politics and policy. He is a research associate at CCIS and beginning in fall 2013 he will be Director of the International Migration Studies Program at UC San Diego.