News Local/State

Is Trump Bad For Illinois Republicans?

Trump Tower in Chicago

It’s still early in the primary election campaign, but Trump’s popularity in polls has repeatedly defied pundits’ predictions of a quick rise and equally quick fall. Part of his popularity is attributable to his populist stand on immigration. (Photo: Tom Davidson/Creative Commons)

There are few things modern politicians hate as much as having to take a stand.

I’m not talking about the relatively easy calls — the kind of positions you expect from Democrats or Republicans. No, I’m talking about the questions that, no matter how you answer, you’re likely to anger a good number of you potential voters.

Such is the effect Donald Trump is having on Republican politicians. It’s still early in the primary election campaign, but Trump’s popularity in polls has repeatedly defied pundits’ predictions of a quick rise and equally quick fall. Part of his popularity is attributable to his populist stand on immigration.

But how does that play in places like Illinois, where the Latino portion of the electorate is growing? How dangerous is Trump’s popularity for Illinois Republicans?

To tell this story, we have to go back in time — way back to 2012.

The London Olympics were a hit, this song became popular beyond reason, and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was dogged by the position on immigration he adopted in the bruising primary campaign.

Moderator: “So if you don’t deport them, how do you send them home?"
Romney: “Well, the answer is self-deportation. ..."

Self-deportation. The idea was: Make life for immigrants without legal status so miserable — make it so hard to find work — that people would voluntarily choose to leave the country.

Latino voting surged in Illinois that year — thanks in part to a concerted effort among advocacy organizations to register voters and get people to the polls.

Romney did quite poorly among Latino voters, and that effect could be felt down-ticket, too. Latino voters were seen as significant factors in several races, particularly downstate, giving Democrats supermajority status in both the Illinois House and Senate.

Republican statesmen were audibly worried about the party’s poor showing among minorities, particularly Latinos.

A couple of weeks after the election, former Illinois governor Jim Thompson told me it was time to find a way to let the millions of taxpaying immigrants become citizens — even those without legal status.

“Yeah, secure our borders, so that more illegals don’t come," Thompson said. "But you know you’re not going to deport 12 million people. So get over the notion that they’ll somehow self-deport, as Gov. Romney said, and deal with it. Bring them out into the open. Put them on the path to citizenship. Let them take a useful part in our civic life as well as part of our economy. And let’s make America more attractive to people with skills who want to come here."

Illinois Republicans seemed to take that message to heart. Right after election 2012, groups such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights decided the time was right to make a push for what are commonly known as immigrant drivers' licenses. The idea was that thousands upon thousands of people were driving illegally in Illinois — which ends up costing legal, insured motorists more when they get into accidents with such drivers. By making undocumented immigrants pass a test and giving them a way to buy insurance, it’d be better for everyone.

Democratic politicians headlined a news conference calling for the licenses in mid-November. By early December, there was a separate news conference featuring Republican notables, such as former Gov. Jim Edgar, the late Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, and former gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady. They insisted their support had to do with the policy, not the politics. But some, like then-House Republican Leader Tom Cross, acknowledged changing positions.

"For me, this has been somewhat of a process of evolution where a number of years ago, we were not supportive of — I was not supportive of this bill," Cross said. "I think a lot of us felt like the federal government would be more aggressive and proactive on the issue of immigration and clearly they have not."

Indeed, it seems many national politicians — Republicans, really — were trying to do everything they could to NOT talk about immigration. But that all changed this summer, when Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign with these comments:

"When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
"But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people.
"It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably— probably— from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection. And we have no competence. We don’t know what’s happening. And it’s got to stop. And it’s got to stop fast."

Trump has only continued to press his tough talk. In August, he published a plan that includes somehow getting Mexico to pay for a wall between the countries, tripling the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and ending birthright citizenship — the idea, enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."

Here’s Trump with Chuck Todd of NBC:

Todd: “You’re going to split up families? You’re going to deport children?"
Trump: “No, no. We’re going to keep the families together. We have to keep the families together. But they have to go."
Todd: “But you’re going to keep them together out."
Trump: “They have to go."
Todd: “What if they have no place to go?"
Trump: “We will work with them. They have to go. ..."

That message seems to have resonated with a significant share of the Republican primary electorate — or at least the portion of the Republican primary electorate that responds to pollsters months before the first votes are cast.

And therein lies the danger for Illinois politicians. And they know it.

Last month, at the Illinois State Fair, State Journal-Register reporter Bernie Schoenburg and I were talking to Congressman Rodney Davis, a Republican who represents central Illinois. This is where you hear a politician do everything he can to avoid taking a clear stand on an issue:

Davis: “We need to have a good debate on good policies that are realistic in this country. And a constitutional amendment — I don’t necessarily see as something that’s going to generate a lot of support right now."
Schoenburg: “Do you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea?"
Davis: “I think we need to continue to pass common-sense immigration reforms, like creating a better temporary ag worker visa program that’s going to encourage our farmers, or those who are growing the fruits and vegetables that are in our stores to be able to get individuals to work in their fields. We have to reform our unemployment system (so it) doesn’t encourage Americans to choose government benefits over finding jobs that would be in the ag sector. Those are things that I’m working on in Washington right now, but I really don’t think the far left or the far right wants to solve any of these individual immigration issues because it’s become such a political hot potato."
Schoenburg: “Is that a 'no opinion' on the 14th Amendment thing?"
Mackey: “Is it, ‘Congressman Open to Repealing 14th Amendment’? Is that the headline here?"
Davis: “No. No. … I, uh … I am not in favor of repealing the 14th Amendment."

It’s kind of a low bar, but I will give Davis some credit for eventually making a definitive statement. It’s more candor than you'd get from a lot of other Illinois politicians. But the fact that it took him several rounds of questions to get there is telling.

The Donald or whoever wins the Republican presidential nomination might be able to afford to write off Latino voters in 2016. As a voting bloc, the group is still growing, and might not be at a place where Republican presidential candidates have to pay heed until the 2020s or beyond.

But that is not the case in Illinois. Gov. Bruce Rauner has invested time and his own money into rebuilding the state Republican Party. He says he'd like to cut into the Democratic supermajorities in the state House and Senate, and soon. But returning Illinois to a true two-party state will be that much harder if you have to do so without the support of Latino voters. And if Republicans have a fire-breathing nativist at the top of the ticket, well, good luck with that.