Meanwhile, Obama is preparing to prioritize immigration reform on his second-term agenda, a move that would do as much to divide the GOP as it would to score points among Hispanic voters. It would threaten to engulf the GOP in a heated internal debate that would make the fiscal-cliff arguments seem like child’s play. Immigration sparked the beginning of the Republican rebellion from George W. Bush, well before the tea party emerged as a GOP force. And the wave of tea party-aligned freshmen, most representing homogeneous districts, aren’t at all inclined to embrace positions they once railed against. Most Republican strategists believe that, without a jump in support from the growing Hispanic population, the GOP could become a permanent minority party—and immigration reform is the ticket to win them over. But they would acknowledge that quickly adding more Hispanics to the voter rolls could further damage the Republican party’s long-term standing as well. Conservative talker Sean Hannity, the day after the 2012 election, reversed course and came out for some version of comprehensive immigration reform; the next day on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh doubled down on his opposition.
All these policy divides have already cropped up in the political arena, and could easily intensify. The litany of conservatives taking on establishment Republicans in 2010 and 2012 is well-documented. Already in 2013, Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is threatening to mount an independent candidacy against Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race, a move that would all but doom the GOP’s chances. The Club for Growth wasted no time making noises about a primary challenge after Rep. Shelley Moore Capito entered the West Virginia Senate race, even though the state, long dependent on federal aid, isn’t particularly hospitable to fiscally conservative dogma.
I’ve long been skeptical about the feasibility of a third party, but I’m beginning to entertain the possibility that the GOP could become split apart as these policy debates come to the fore.