Potential 2016 GOP Candidates Working to Align With Conservative Base

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., listens to a speaker during the fourth annual "Faith and Freedom BBQ" hosted by U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan in Anderson, S.C., Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., listens to a speaker during the fourth annual "Faith and Freedom BBQ" hosted by U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan in Anderson, S.C., Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)Chuck Burton / AP

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The power of conservatives in the Republican Party has been illustrated again this week, as two of the party’s potential 2016 candidates have reversed themselves on major issues to more closely align with the GOP base.

On Tuesday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio continued distancing himself from an immigration bill he helped write last year, releasing a public letter to Obama saying, “I have become convinced that there is no realistic path forward on comprehensive reform for the foreseeable future.” The next day, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, once a supporter of the Common Core, a group of education standards created by the nation’s governors and backed by the Obama administration, filed a lawsuit objecting to stop the administration from tying some funds to adoption of the standards.

Both men blamed the president for causing their shifts. Rubio, who was part of a “Gang of Eight” last year that worked on a bipartisan bill that would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people here illegally, said he was withdrawing support from the legislation in part because Obama’s approach on immigration had created “unsettling chaos.”

Jindal said the Obama administration was implementing Common Core, a voluntary program that states do not have to join, in a way that was “far beyond the intentions of Congress.”

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal waves as he speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa August 9, 2014. The Family Leader, a pro-family Iowa organization, is hosting the event in conjunction with national partners Family Research Council Action and Citizens United.BRIAN FRANK / Reuters

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Forty-six states initially adopted the standards, but now many Republican governors, like Jindal, are withdrawing from it. Many conservative activists don’t like the teaching methods encouraged by Common Core and have started referring to the legislation as “Obamacore.”

Some Republicans who joined the immigration push, like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, remain behind the bill, but others, like Arizona’s John McCain, are also now suggesting like Rubio they would like Obama to focus more on border security.

But the high-profile reversals, particularly Jindal’s lawsuit, suggest both men had other audiences in mind: Republican primary voters.

The Republican Party, which talked about shifting to the left on immigration in the wake of its dismal showing among Hispanic voters in 2012, is instead heading in the opposite direction. Conservatives are now sharply criticizing Obama’s program that limits the deportation of young illegal immigrants and are warning of a constitutional fight if the president expands that policy to groups immigrants, as he is considering.

Common Core is in some ways the latest iteration of No Child Left Behind, the national education policy George W. Bush adopted during his presidency. NCLB, which actually did create federal standards for the nation’s schools, became a symbol of government overreach among conservatives and was one of the reasons they turned against Bush towards the end of his term. The opposition to Common Core is a way to signal frustration with a federal government that conservatives feel has grown too large and intrusive.

That Rubio and Jindal felt such a need to distance themselves from these ideas should worry Republicans who want to win the presidential election in 2016. Polls show the majority of Americans support the immigration bill Rubio helped write, and Democrats will are likely to portray the GOP as anti-immigrant in 2016. Bush and other Republicans have used education policy as a way to build support among minorities and female supporters who normally back Democrats.

More broadly, the two potential candidates moves this week suggest that once the GOP primary starts, candidates may be pushed even further to the right. Mitt Romney said he favored “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants during the 2012 campaign as a way to demonstrate his conservative bonafides to primary voters.

That comment was a problem in the general election, and Republican leaders, particularly RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, would like to avoid such harsh rhetoric in this primary season.

There are other figures in the GOP who are challenging the views of the party activists. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, while opposed to immigration reform, has taken notably less conservative stands on issues like ending the “war on drugs.” Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently signed into law a provision that grants in-state tuition to young people whose parents brought them to the United States, a reversal from his previous opposition to that idea.

That said, Paul is running a presidential campaign designed to push the Republican Party in a new direction. Scott is trying to keep his job in a heavily-Latino state.

Rubio and Jindal are following the mainstream of party activists. This will likely not be the last time they switch positions to court the party’s base.