Last weekend, Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA) publically announced that he is joining the Democrats in support of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, specifically the one passed by the Senate earlier this year. While we may like to think that Denham is doing this as a symbolic gesture of his willingness to break Congressional gridlock and make our country a more welcoming destination for immigrants, his true motive can be revealed by looking at electoral details.
Denham represents the 10th District of California, which has some telling demographic and electoral attributes. Denham’s hold on the district is by no means secure, as the district’s partisan leanings have not been on his side recently. Denham won in 2010 with only 52% of the vote, defeating his challenger by barely 11,000 votes. The district voted for Obama in 2012, and Denham is facing a tough Democratic challenger in Michael Eggman in 2014. Though Eggman does not have previous political experience, he is an agricultural-based district native with lots of local support. Secondly, Denham’s district has a large Hispanic population (40% of the population), possibly due to the strong agricultural sector from which Eggman hails. The combination of a tough political climate for a Republican and a large share of his constituency likely very interested in immigration reform makes it a smart electoral move for Denham to join Democrats in support of the Senate’s immigration reform bill.
Looking at the larger picture, however, Denham’s move alone does not affect the chances that the Senate’s reform bill will pass the House. Currently, 185 Democrats have come out in support of the bill, and even if all Democrats were to vote for it, 17 or more Republicans would need to join them to pass the bill. The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan analyzed other studies and data to see how many other districts like Denham’s exist, with Republican Congressmen representing divided districts with large Hispanic populations. Only 24 districts have a Hispanic population of greater than 25%, with 15 of those leaning strongly Republican. This leaves only nine representatives (including Gary Miller and David Valadao from California and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida), not enough to pass the bill through the House. However, pro-reform interest groups have targeted 28 Republicans whom they believe they can sway to vote for the bill, so the list of potential aisle-crossers is not necessarily limited to nine.
In order to reach a floor vote, however, the Senate bill would have to make it through the House subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, which is chaired by Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. In July, Gowdy stated that “The Senate bill is not going to pass in the House,” which does not lend much optimism to the bill making it through committee unscathed. Gowdy, like many other Republicans, believes in securing the border before providing a path to citizenship, something not accomplished in the Senate bill. House Republicans seem more in favor of multiple, smaller immigration reform bills rather than the large sweeping Senate bill, something Marco Rubio supported last Monday.
Despite the many obstacles to immigration reform, Denham’s move, politically motivated as it might be, is encouraging if just for the fact that at least one member of Congress is willing to work with the other party to accomplish major reform. Though the list of potential candidates is short, there is always the possibility that if enough Republicans support the Senate bill, or are at least willing to have a conversation about how to amend it so that both parties will support it, that Republican leadership both in general and in the appropriate committees will allow the bill to the floor for a vote. The resulting conference committee could be either productive or a disaster, but any type of legislative action would certainly be better than the status quo.