Political A-Bomb: 'Amnesty' Looms Large in GOP Primary Fights

Image: Protest in Glendale, Ariz.
Judy Schulz, front, cheers as her husband Richard Schulz, left, both of Glendale, Ariz., as they joined hundreds supporting Arizona's new law on illegal immigration as they listen to speakers near the capitol Saturday, June 5, 2010, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Ross D. Franklin / AP

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Immigration and the A-bomb -- “amnesty” -- remain powerful forces within the GOP

Last night in Nebraska, conservative Ben Sasse won the GOP Senate primary, and Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) barely held on to win his congressional primary. But there was a common thread in both races that tells us something important about President Obama’s top remaining domestic goal and the GOP presidential field in 2016: Immigration remains a nuclear bomb -- call it the A-bomb for “amnesty” -- for Republicans to wield. So trailing to Sasse in the polls, primary opponent Shane Osborn signed a pledge to oppose “amnesty” and asked Sasse to do the same. “There is only one proven conservative on the immigration issue seeking the U.S. Senate seat in Nebraska and it is Shane Osborn. It is evidenced by Osborn’s willingness to sign a pledge against amnesty,” Osborn said in a statement, per Breitbart’s Jonathan Strong. Sasse responded, "I oppose amnesty and a path to citizenship or voting for those who have come into our country illegally. You cannot make a deal with President Obama: He refuses to enforce laws already on the books.” Then, in Terry’s closer-than-expected primary, the incumbent congressman dropped this flier on opponent Dan Frei, per the Omaha World-Herald: “Terry's mailing, sent to voters [last] week, displays a photo of GOP challenger Dan Frei between pictures of President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats. ‘Dan Frei supports spending your tax dollars to provide free health care for 11 million illegal immigrants,’ Terry's mailing says.”

What does that say about immigration reform’s chances in 2014? And what does it say about 2016?

These last-minute attacks raise two questions. One, with immigration being such a powerful force in Republican politics, how is comprehensive immigration reform going to get through the House of Representatives this year? (President Obama held an event yesterday urging the House to pass this reform.) Two, with the natural instinct inside the GOP to attack pro-immigration-reform candidates as favoring “amnesty,” how does the Republican Party not destroy itself on immigration -- again -- come 2016, especially if the House leadership ends up going over the heads of the grassroots and cuts a deal? Remember, John McCain BARELY won the GOP presidential nomination after being tagged as the “amnesty” candidate in 2008. And Mitt Romney helped sink Rick Perry on immigration well before the Texan’s famous “oops” blunder in 2012. How did that work out for the GOP? Obama beat McCain (who then dropped his call for immigration reform) among Latinos, 67%-31% in 2008, and Obama beat Romney here, 71%-27% in 2012. And if immigration remains such a powerful force inside the Republican Party, that has to be an important story to follow if Jeb Bush and/or Marco Rubio run for the White House in 2016. Because as we saw in Nebraska, the attacks will be coming. Immigration is really a “rock and a hard place issue” for the GOP: If they don’t get the issue behind them, the GOP will struggle to win presidential elections. But the cost of getting the issue behind them -- short term -- could be more of a problem than many in the Acela Corridor realize. We’ve gone back and forth about whether we think immigration can get done either this year or EARLY next year. But judging by how divisive the issue still is -- and how potent the issue still is in primaries -- we’re just not sure how it gets done without causing major internal damage in the GOP.

On Sasse’s win in Nebraska

As for the primary results in Nebraska, Ben Sasse won the GOP Senate primary with 49% of the vote, banker Sid Dinsdale got 22%, and Osborn got 21%. Sasse’s victory is a win for the Tea Party and conservative groups who backed him. But there’s a bit of an asterisk here: “The ideological differences between Mr. Sasse, the president of a small college and a former Bush administration official, and the Republican who was seen as his main rival, Mr. Osborn, a former state treasurer, are scant,” the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin writes. “But, sensing an opportunity to make a difference in an open-seat race, groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, along with Senators Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, got behind Mr. Sasse, arguing that he would be a bolder pick.” A lot like Marco Rubio and Ron Johnson, the Tea Party got behind Sasse, but so did part of the establishment. Of course, there was one part of the establishment that wasn’t supporting Sasse -- Senate Minority Mitch McConnell.

On the other races last night

In the other contests, Pete Ricketts won the GOP gubernatorial nomination over Jon Bruning, 27%-26%. And as mentioned above, Rep. Lee Terry survived a scare from primary opponent Dan Frei, 53%-47%. In West Virginia, meanwhile, “Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Natalie Tennant captured primary wins on Tuesday, setting the stage for a historic U.S. Senate showdown in November that will give West Virginia its first female senator,” the AP writes. Capito is the favorite in the fall. And in the GOP primary to succeed Capito in the House, Alex Mooney won, and he’ll face Nick Casey in the fall.

Father’s Day (a month early)

Being a dynastic candidate this election season has been an asset so far. How do we know? Just check out the TV ads that candidates with famous last names (and fathers) are airing. Here’s Sen. Mary Landrieu’s new TV ad featuring her father, former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu. Per NBC’s Sarah Blackwill, here is an ad that Sen. Mark Begich already has aired about his late father. And here’s Michelle Nunn with her father, former Sen. Sam Nunn.

Kasich sitting pretty heading into November

About a week ago, we wrote that no 2014 politician had improved his or her political standing over the past two years as much as Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has. And here’s a new Quinnipiac poll bearing that out. He has a 56% job-approval rating in the Buckeye State, and he leads Democratic challenger Ed Fitzgerald by 15 points among registered voters, 50%-35%.

The DCCC’s rough Tuesday

Meanwhile, the folks over at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a rough day on Tuesday. First, Ed Jany -- the candidate the Dem group recruited at the last minute to run against Rep. David Jolly (R-FL) in FL-13 -- dropped out of the race, leaving Democrats without a candidate in a congressional seat Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. “The sudden and surprise announcement comes days after a Tampa Bay Times report about him seemingly padding his educational background and resume,” the Tampa Bay Times’ Adam Smith writes. And then came the news that Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) will not be on the ballot for Michigan’s Aug. 5 primary. NBC’s Frank Thorp: “Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett said the nominating petitions of the 84-year-old congressman are insufficient because they were collected by circulators not registered to vote. Conyers is expected to appeal the decision, but if it stands it could derail Conyers' bid for a 26th term in Congress.” Conyers still might be able to win his primary as a write-in candidate, but still…

Cantor’s primary challenge

Lastly, don’t miss this front-page headline in the Washington Post: “Eric Cantor’s tea party opponent in Va. Primary may be picking up momentum.” Whether the opponent was getting traction or not, he now will with this story in a paper that still resonates in Cantor’s district in Richmond, VA.

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