Older white voters are aging and falling as a percentage of the electorate. Republican leaders, including former President George W. Bush and his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, recognize this reality. They believe that the party must respond or face never winning the presidency again. Complicating their challenge is the fact that Republican political strength is concentrated in the House of Representatives, whose constituents live primarily in rural and suburban areas. However, minority voters are heavily concentrated in densely populated urban areas. The average GOP congressional district is 75% white, up 2% since 2010. Meanwhile, the average Democratic district is only 51% white, down 1% since 2010. For a lot of Republican members of Congress, allowing a pathway to citizenship through immigration reform could have an adverse effect on their personal careers, even though it could be better for the national Republican Party.
Republican districts have also become less ideologically diverse. The Cook Political report, a widely respected non-partisan publication, says that of the 234 Republican seats in the House, 186 of them are considered “safe” compared to 148 seats 20 years ago. During the same period of time, the average Republican congressional district increased from seven percentage points more Republican than the national average to 12%. According to a May 1 Pew Research Center survey on immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, 52% of Republican voters polled oppose amnesty while 27% support it. In contrast, 60% of Democratic voters polled support amnesty, while 18% oppose it.
So it’s not surprising that the average House Republican sees little incentive to vote for immigration reform. In fact, House Republicans who do so face the political consequences of going against more conservative members of their party. The easiest thing for them to do is avoid a major immigration reform altogether. The preferred platform for most House Republicans is to demand border security first and facilitate immigration for highly skilled workers second. At the same time, they want to delay any further action until the border is secure. This course of action would benefit House Republicans but it’s less appealing for Republican senators, who are elected at large.
Revealing this divide between the House and Senate, roughly one-third of Republican senators, led by John McCain (R-Ariz.), voted for the immigration reform bill that passed in the Senate by a surprising 68-32 vote on June 27. To secure their votes, and the votes of a few wavering Democrats, Democratic leadership conceded to a proposal to increase border security by $39 billion and added an amendment to allow the hiring of 20,000 new border-security agents, new fencing, electronic surveillance and drones.