Politics

Ground game

For GOP candidates, a tricky balance on immigration

Scott Olson/Getty Images

DES MOINES — For decades, before Republicans could begin exploring a run for president, they needed to figure out exactly what position they would take on federal subsidies to promote the use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline.

In the two states that kick off the presidential primary season there were differing views.

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In Iowa, ethanol was the last best hope to help the family farmer, create jobs, and preserve the state’s rural heritage. In New Hampshire, the idea of federal subsidies smacked against the state’s frugal nature, especially when nearly no one in the state stood to gain financially.

But these days, a new issue has emerged that might even be thornier for candidates to balance than ethanol: immigration reform.

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At the Iowa Freedom Summit last weekend, immigration played a prominent role in the speeches of all eight potential presidential candidates. To be sure, some of that was because the summit’s host, Representative Steve King, is outspoken on the issue. King once suggested those in the country illegally spend so much time drug running across the border they have “calves the size of cantaloupes.” After noticing that undocumented immigrants sat next to first lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address this month, he asked whether they were “deportable.”

At the summit, Donald Trump, who says he is exploring a presidential run, suggested that “half” of those in the country illegally were criminals. Ben Carson, a retired Baltimore neurosurgeon also putting together a campaign, talked about a guest worker program that would essentially force immigrants to self-deport. Others stressed border security and called for cutting off government services to immigrants.

Iowa has seen a dramatic increase in immigrants in recent years, many of whom work on farms and in meat processing plants. A federal raid of a processing plant in Postville led to the arrest of nearly 400. After all was done, nearly a fifth of the town’s 2,200 residents left, causing the local economy to collapse.

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In New Hampshire, 2,200 miles from the Mexican border, the issue is more intellectual. While it appeals to a certain segment of the Republican base, polls suggest that the more popular candidates at the moment — Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — are those who are interested more in appealing to Hispanic immigrants in particular than they are in being hard-line on the issue.

“Immigration as an issue does not take on the same importance in New Hampshire as it does in Iowa,” said Wayne Lesperance, a New England College political science professor. “Iowans are much more exposed to immigrant labor than Granite Staters. In Iowa, there are over 92,000 farms. New Hampshire has just over 4,000. So, that exposure to legal migrant workers raises, by extension, the issue of illegal immigrants.”

That said, Lesperance noted that there is a subset of New Hampshire Republicans who treat immigration, along with gun rights and the Common Core education standards, as a litmus test for candidates.

On the other hand, some New Hampshire Republican primary voters may seek candidates inclined to be more inclusive toward Hispanics, if only to make themselves more electable. In 2012 President Obama received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared to Romney’s 27 percent. The Republican National Committee issued a 100-page report after the election pointing out that the Hispanic population was growing quickly — and growing more Democratic.

The issue of immigration is also more complicated than simply saying yes or no to federal ethanol subsidies. However, New Hampshire conservative activist Jeff Chidester, a friend of King’s, said the important difference among presidential candidates may not be their positions on the immigration, but how they emphasize it.

“The issue is important to the base, and one only needs to look at the campaign ads that candidate Scott Brown ran to understand that,” said Chidester, referring to last fall’s Republican Senate nominee. “New Hampshire lacks an anti-illegal-immigration advocate such as King, which means that it will be left to the New Hampshire GOP base, in general, to determine how far up on the list of priorities the issue of immigration will place.”

James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him
on Twitter @jamespindell.
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