Politics & Policy

CPAC Immigration Hawks Turn up the Heat on Jeb and Rubio.

Jeb Bush at CPAC, February 27, 2015 (Alex Wong/Getty)
If they're tempted to move toward the middle, the base may have other ideas.

Back in 2014, she helped take down former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Now, Laura Ingraham is hunting even bigger game in her quest to rid the Republican party of immigration moderates: She’s looking to knock Jeb Bush out of the 2016 presidential race.

Ingraham has hit Bush hard in the past. But speaking before a packed auditorium at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, Ingraham was especially biting.“Why don’t we just call it quits and let Jeb Bush and Hillary [appear] on the same ticket?” Ingraham said. “I’m designing the bumper sticker: ‘Clush: What difference does it make?’”

As tea-party-aligned attendees plotted to walk out of Bush’s appearance at CPAC later in the day, Ingraham stood on stage to rally the troops. She took a jab at Bush’s wealth, made a sarcastic remark about his wife’s spending habits, and added that the elite “donor class” is hostile to conservatism.

Ingraham says her complaints about potential GOP presidential candidates who are weak on immigration aren’t personal — or confined to Jeb alone. “I like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, but this is about the country, defeating Hillary,” Ingraham says in an e-mail. “If we get this issue wrong, everything else we fought for as conservatives is jeopardized.”

Many conservatives agree. Soon after dozens of CPAC attendees marched out of Bush’s appearance led by a man carrying a Gadsden flag, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions held a private meeting with reporters and conservative activists. Echoing Ingraham’s remarks from earlier in the day, Sessions took aim at Bush and called on the GOP to put workers ahead of donors on the immigration issue or lose again in 2016. “I don’t know where he would be as the campaign goes along,” Sessions said. “I think his policy on immigration is in error, and I think it would deny him the opportunity to appeal to a lot of people.”

Jeb, as the presumptive front-runner for the 2016 Republican nomination, is taking most of the heat. But he’s not the only potential candidate who might be out of step with much of the Republican base on immigration. Florida senator Marco Rubio made a point of assuring conservative attendees at CPAC that he’d learned the error of his ways after his comprehensive immigration reform bill failed in 2013. And as NRO’s Andrew Johnson reported, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has walked back his former support for a form of amnesty for some illegal immigrants as he plans his own run in 2016.

Nearly every potential presidential candidate that took the stage at CPAC addressed immigration in some form. Former Texas governor Rick Perry argued that his state was capable of securing its border without the help of the federal government, while Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal focused his criticism on President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.​

Whatever stance candidates adopt on immigration in 2016, there will likely be some impulse to moderate their positions at some point in order to broaden their appeal beyond the activist base that predominates at CPAC. It won’t be an easy task: Immigration hawks like Ingraham seem content to give the potential candidates a fair hearing for now, but they have an itchy trigger-finger.

“CPAC is just the beginning of the conversation, but an important start,” Ingraham says. “Republicans slavishly follow the demands of the Chamber of Commerce and Silicon Valley tech barons; Democrats just want more voters, more union members. But today more people are onto this bipartisan shuffle. Either Republicans become more populist in their approach — improving the lives of middle class Americans and legal immigrants, not catering to the rich and big business — or they are poised to lose another presidential election.”

Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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