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GOP confronts 'angry white guy' problem by rethinking immigration amnesty

The embrace by high-profile Republicans of immigration reform cuts deeply into long-time Republican class and identity politics that’s focused in the past few years on illegal immigration.

By Staff writer / November 10, 2012

In this April 2011 photo, illegal immigrant Viridiana Martinez is comforted by activist Mohammad Abdollahi, as Maj. K.E. Williams, of the Atlanta Police Department, warns her of arrest unless she moves while protesting for education rights for illegal immigrants.

David Goldman/AP

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The sudden embrace by high-profile Republicans of immigration reform, including (shockingly) the potential for amnesty for more than 10 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows of US society, hints at concerns so deep that Republicans may be willing to risk an ideological civil war that could split the party.

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Suggestions by top Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, that the GOP should not cede meaningful immigration reform to the Democrats cuts deeply into long-time Republican class and identity politics that’s focused in the past few years on America’s illegal immigrant subculture.

Deep-seated anger over illegal immigration is partly economic, to be sure. But it also represents  a decades-long political strategy by Republicans of piquing racial and class resentments among middle-class whites, many who chafe at seeing other able-bodied Americans and non-Americans getting handouts paid for by hardworking taxpayers.

QUIZ: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

But as millions of potential white Romney voters stayed home on Election Day, possibly enough to give Obama the win, the long-time racialized strategy is now coming under serious question as a successful political framework, with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) noting that the party is no longer generating enough “angry white guys” to win elections.

The focus on the Hispanic vote opens the door for a new generation of Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, to put their stamp on the party. But it also augurs debate that will play out as early as next week over whether the GOP needs to develop a more open-arms strategy at the risk of offending a core of rural, religious whites, who in many states control the party’s primary system.

“Republicans need to modify their stance on immigration, but their deeper need is more profound: a way to sell limited-government conservatism that has a broader appeal than sublimated white Christian identity politics,” writes Jonathan Chait, in New York Magazine this week.

The stakes, meanwhile, are as huge as the ideological divide over immigration is deep. “A GOP civil war could well end in the creation of a third party,” suggests Brigitte Nacos, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York.

The new reality for many Republicans became painfully evident on Election Day: That it may no longer be feasible to in essence lock out a portion of the population whose conservative views on religion and work are a natural fit with the GOP, and who have shown willingness to vote for Republicans in the past. George W. Bush, who hailed from Texas and courted Hispanics, received 44 percent of their vote in 2004 while Mitt Romney drew only 27 percent.

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