GOP divide on immigration grows, threatening election prospects

GOP candidates attack each other in Milwaukee

At the the Fox Business/WSJ Republican debate in Milwaukee on November 10, the remaining GOP candidates took a shots at each other: Rand Paul jabbed at Marco Rubio's tax plans, Carly Fiorina jabbed at Donald Trump's relationship with Putin, and Be
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At the the Fox Business/WSJ Republican debate in Milwaukee on November 10, the remaining GOP candidates took a shots at each other: Rand Paul jabbed at Marco Rubio's tax plans, Carly Fiorina jabbed at Donald Trump's relationship with Putin, and Be

The already bitter divide among Republican presidential candidates over immigration is deepening, a struggle that’s going to keep the party in turmoil well into 2016 – and jeopardize its chances of winning the White House next year.

The clash over how to deal with immigrants in the country illegally sparked the ugliest exchanges of Tuesday’s debate, as the two sides showed little taste for even a hint of compromise. They may show agreement on the basic outlines of other core conservative issues, notably tax policy, but the schism on immigration shows no signs of fading.

If anything, it’s deepening. Monday, a federal appeals court ruled against President Barack Obama’s plan that would protect about 5 million people in this country from deportation, many children brought to the United States illegally by their parents.

The administration plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, virtually assuring immigration will remains a pressing issue throughout the campaign year.

For Republicans, that means a prolonged brawl.

Those candidates marshaling voter anger are determined to clamp down on what they see as an uncontrollable flood of undocumented immigrants. Their followers are roughly the same voters who created and energized the tea party movement six years ago and cheer the small but vocal House of Representatives’ Freedom Caucus. They’re the hard-core conservatives who have had enough of compromise.

Their 2016 heroes, real estate mogul Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, continue to lead the Republican pack and show no signs of fading. Just behind is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Mass deportation is politically toxic among most Hispanics. In 2012, they helped sink Republican Mitt Romney after he suggested undocumented immigrants self-deport.

Trump’s rise coincided with his talk about Mexicans and rapists and his insistence he can and must build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Tuesday, he reiterated his view that he’d send undocumented immigrants back where they came from. Cruz chimed in, “If Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose.”

On the other Republican side are the politically practical conservatives. “Philosophy doesn’t work when you run something,” argued John Kasich, the governor of Ohio. The pragmatists appreciate Kasich and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, who say Trump’s immigration ideas are nuts.

“It’s a silly argument,” Kasich told Trump of his deportation plan.

It is not an adult argument. It makes no sense.

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio on Donald Trump’s plan to deport undocumented immigrants

Kasich and Bush, though, lack the momentum Trump and Carson have shown and are unlikely to pick up any from the debate. Early reviews indicated Kasich may have hurt himself Tuesday.

Kasich has made some inroads in New Hampshire, site of the nation’s first primary, where he’s been running a strong fourth. Voters there are traditionally less inclined to accept the hard-core line. In 2008, Sen. John McCain, a leading proponent of an immigration compromise, won the state’s primary after trying to push his plan through the Senate.

The wild card in this duel is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

He was elected in 2010 as a tea party favorite but has since inched more toward the practical camp. Rubio’s been picking up establishment steam in recent days, notably some congressional lawmakers have endorsed him. He’s now a solid third in most national polls.

Rubio got off easy Tuesday.

He wasn’t asked about immigration, an issue where he might have squirmed. He was an architect of a bipartisan 2013 immigration plan that would have bolstered border security and created a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants.

Under fire from conservatives for embracing the Senate plan, Rubio backed away from supporting it, explaining it was too big and no longer viable. He blamed Obamacare, saying the administration often ignored the law as written, so people felt the White House would not enforce the immigration law properly.

Trump and Cruz agree, but with more passion. And they see their frustration with immigration policy as not only an effective way of rallying supporters, but also a symbol of all that’s wrong with government and Washington.

The wall works, believe me.

Trump on his plan to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall

Cruz, for instance, Tuesday got in more digs at the mainstream media, a favorite target of his, by noting “the politics of (immigration) will be very, very different if a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande.”

Or, he added, “if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages in the press.”

The pragmatists wince. “They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this,” said Bush. “The way you win the presidency is to have practical plans.”

He was right. Said a quick tweet from Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon: “We actually are doing high fives right now.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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