It wasn't that long ago that Lindsay Graham seemed like the only voice of reason -- well, comparative reason -- in the Republican Party. Through 2009 and early 2010, even in the face of vicious opposition from within his state, Graham appeared determined to work with Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform. His actions led David Brooks to describe him as "the bravest politician in the country, bar none."
But bravery, as it turns out, has its limits. Graham backed out of immigration reform negotiations months ago, blaming health care reform -- not his party -- for making the climate for its passage impossible. And now he's done a genuine about-face. Last week, Graham told Fox News he was considering introducing a constitutional amendment that would repeal the birthright citizenship that is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
During the 2008 campaign, it didn't seem that the Republican party could move further to the right on immigration. Back in 2007, when Mike Huckabee endorsed the idea of an "anchor baby" amendment, the backlash was so severe that he was forced to recant within days. But just a few years later, the Republican's most sensible senator on immigration is standing behind the very same amendment. And the party's number two leader, Senator Jon Kyl, is endorsing it too. "The 14th Amendment has been interpreted to provide that if you are born in the United States, you are a citizen no matter what. So that question is, if both parents are here illegally, should there be a reward for their illegal behavior?"
What Kyl doesn't seem to understand -- and what Graham has clearly forgotten -- is that the stakes on this issue are, politically, at least, far greater than most. It's a fact that Karl Rove tried, but failed, to get his party to wise up to:
You can no longer win the presidency without the Hispanic vote.
Over the last ten years, 80 percent of the population growth in this country has been fueled by minorities, and most of that has come from Hispanics. George W. Bush was able to win reelection largely because his support for immigration reform earned him 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. But John McCain only won 31 percent of the Hispanic vote, which led him to lose Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Florida -- and the White House.
That shift among Hispanics hasn't dissipated, even as President Obama's approval has waned among the larger population. His job approval is still at 57 percent among Hispanics, according to an AP/Univision poll taken in late July. Meanwhile, the Republican party has decided en masse to stand behind an anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic agenda that's even further to the fringes than they're used to. This will almost surely solidify the Hispanic vote behind the Democratic party for good.
How then, the GOP ought to be wondering, could a Republican nominee possibly win the 270 electoral votes needed to secure the presidency?
Consider the numbers: Obama won 365 electoral votes in 2008. A successful Republican nominee would need to pick off 95 electoral votes in 2012 from states Obama won in 2008.
Let's assume that in 2012, the Republicans are able to hold onto Arizona, despite its Hispanic population growth, despite John McCain not being on the ballot, and despite its newfound anti-immigrant infamy. Let's also assume that the Republican nominee will win every single state that John McCain won. Where will the remaining 95 electoral votes come from?
They won't be from Colorado, New Mexico or Nevada. Those states went blue in 2008 largely because of the Hispanic vote, and they show no signs of reversing. That's 19 electoral votes off the table.
They won't likely be from Florida either. Though the state has been traded back and forth between parties for multiple election cycles, changes there, too, are likely to cause it to fade from the battleground. Florida has, at times, appeared to be a Hispanic vote anomaly. Cuban Americans have dominated the Hispanic vote there for years and have always been extremely conservative. In fact, Obama won a higher percentage of the Cuban vote than any Democrat in history, and he didn't even break 40 percent.
But as older Cubans are supplanted in the voting population by their grandchildren, the Cuban vote will no longer be a place where Republicans can run up their totals. Among Cuban voters over 65, 80 percent voted for John McCain. But among those under 45, 51 percent voted for Obama. What's more is that Florida is experiencing a huge surge in non-Cuban Hispanic population growth. Cubans used to make up half of the Hispanic vote in Florida. Now they make up only a third. And President Obama won 70 percent of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote in 2008. As that population growth continues, and as the Cuban vote margin narrows for Republicans, Florida will be poised to turn reliably blue.
Without those four states, Republicans wouldn't win the White House even if they retook North Carolina and Virginia and Ohio and Indiana and Iowa and New Hampshire. That would only get them 70 electoral votes. To put the party over the top, the Republican nominee would have to win all of those states, plus a state like Michigan or Pennsylvania, which Republicans have competed aggressively for, but haven't won in more than two decades. No serious Republican strategist could expect to put them in play.
That all but rules out Republicans reclaiming the White House in 2012. And in 2016 and 2020, when Hispanic growth in Arizona and Texas puts both states squarely in play, it will make it even harder for the Republican party to claw its way back.
In that context, Democrats should count themselves relieved to see Senators like Graham and Kyl floating this kind of anti-Hispanic agenda. It's going to cost the party the White House for an entire generation.