King emerges big winner in GOP immigration war — for now

House Republican leaders acknowledged last week they were playing a losing hand with their own rank-and-file members on immigration reform, and like smart card players they have decided to fold, for now at least.

Score one for Rep. Steve King of Iowa’s 4th district, who was seen as an outlier on the issue as Republicans set off for Maryland’s Eastern Shore in late January for a two-day policy retreat.

The House Republican leadership believed King was one of just 20-30 GOP House members who equated immigration reform with “amnesty” for people who illegally crossed into the United States.

The GOP leadership believed there were more than 200 Republican members who either supported reform or could be persuaded to come along in order to help leaders address an issue that was hurting the Republican Party at the polls.

Boy, were they wrong.

King, and a few like-minded colleagues and conservative activists, framed the debate in such a way that Speaker John Boehner’s, R-Ohio, immigration “principles” — which would normalize the status of over 11 million undocumented immigrants — were a loser before the game even began at the Eastern Shore.

Last week, Boehner announced he was dropping the issue. The House will not consider immigration reform in 2014.

Boehner said distrust for President Obama is too strong among House Republicans to pursue an issue as complex and difficult as immigration reform.

That was exactly the way King presented the issue in public comments and discussions with his colleagues. It didn’t matter what rules and restrictions Republicans put into an immigration bill, King argued, Obama would simply legalize everyone anyway.

Why, King asked, should Republicans even touch an issue that divides their party and rewards Obama?

In the end, a majority of House Republicans agreed.

Will Republicans pay a price at the polls in November for saying no to immigration reform?

We should be clear that this debate is about Latino immigrants, and Republicans will pay a price in places where Latino voters are alienated from the Republican Party because of inflammatory language from prominent figures like King.

King says his rhetoric about illegal border crossers with backpacks full of marijuana isn’t intended as a slur, but Latino voters sure hear it that way.

That, in turn, will have a negative impact particularly on GOP candidates for Senate and governor in states with large numbers of Latino voters.

The failure to act on immigration could be especially painful for the party’s presidential nominee in 2016: Mitt Romney’s dismal performance among Latino voters was one of the reasons Boehner believed the party should take action on the issue.

And the long-running impasse has frustrated many of the GOP’s allies in the business community, who see economic gain in reform and don’t like being forced to act as de facto immigration enforcement officers.

But more specifically, will House Republicans pay in November for failure to embrace some form of immigration overhaul?

The simple answer is no.

If Boehner believed this issue would put the Republican House majority at risk in 2014, he would still be trying to find a way to push forward with reform legislation.

Boehner has demonstrated in recent months that he is willing to confront the party’s right flank when he believes the price of ideological purity, or rigidity, is too high.

In the case of immigration, Boehner clearly thinks the issue is a big problem for the party. But it is not a problem that threatens the survival of the House majority right now.

An interactive map of congressional districts prepared by shows why.

CQ says two-thirds of House Republicans represent districts with Latino populations of 10 percent or less. In fact, over 50 of the 233 House Republicans hail from districts with Latino populations of 3 percent or less.

Steve King’s 4th district has a Latino population of 6 percent, the same as Rep. Tom Latham’s neighboring 3rd district.

The bottom line is immigration isn’t a do-or-die issue for House Republicans, yet, and Steve King knew that fact very well.

King goes a step further, asserting that immigration reform isn’t a do-or-die issue for Latino voters, either.

Boehner didn’t think the Republican Party should gamble its future on King’s analysis being correct, but the cards were dealt on the Eastern Shore and now Republicans must play them.

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