The Plan to Sell House Republicans on Immigration Reform

Backroom pressure, ad money could sway conservatives, advocates say.

July 2, 2013— -- Immigration reform cleared the Senate last week with a convincing amount of support from Republicans. Years of organizing and activism helped make that happen.

But passing a bill through the House is a much bigger challenge. It's controlled by Republicans who can be downright antagonistic toward what is arguably the centerpiece of the legislation: a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Here's how some activists and lobbyists plan to crack the House:

1. Find the influencers

Pro-immigration reform groups are just beginning to identify which House Republicans are seen as "gettable," according to several GOP operatives who work with those outside political organizations.

That could be tough, considering that few House Republicans have much incentive to support legislation that contains a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Only 24 out of 234 House Republicans represent districts that have a Hispanic voter share that's greater than 25 percent.

But pro-reform advocates believe they can woo individual House GOPers in other ways. Advocates will encourage House members who can set the tone for others on immigration to speak out. Reform-backers believe Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is key to that effort. The party's vice presidential nominee in 2012 has voiced support for overhauling the nation's immigration laws and commands respect among all House Republican factions.

"I think that somebody like Paul Ryan is in a really unique place to bring together Republicans and Democrats around a solution," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "He gets it from a policy perspective and he gets it from a personal perspective, and he has credibility like nobody else in the House."

That playbook also includes highlighting the economic benefits of a path to citizenship and new worker visa programs. Those aspects could appeal to skeptical House Republicans.

Pro-reform groups are also looking to get the support of stakeholders in certain Republican districts. Everyone from business leaders to political donors could help give GOP politicians cover if they choose to support reform.

Joshua Culling, the immigration point man at Grover Norquist's conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, said there's room for the pro-reform coalition to grow in the House. But that will take a hard sell and political cover to protect Republican "Yes" votes from a potential backlash from some conservative groups and voters.

"We've heard from members that 'we want to support this, but we want to feel more comfortable,'" he said in an interview.

2. Give them support

Behind-the-scenes lobbying will play a big role in swaying House Republicans on immigration, but public campaigns matter, too.

Already, pro-immigration reform groups have outspent their opponents by nearly a three-to-one margin in radio and TV ads between April and June, according to numbers compiled by National Journal. Ad money from the pro-side has helped senators like Lindsey Graham, who faces re-election next year and has been hit by anti-immigration activists' ads in his home state of South Carolina.

But reform backers believe there's even more money out there from Republican donors that can be used to run ads to provide political cover for GOP lawmakers who vote yes.

Ad spending on immigration is only a fraction of what was spent on health care reform. Over the first 10 months of 2009, $166 million was spent on TV ads on health reform alone, according to CNNMoney. The amount of ad money on TV and radio spent on immigration over the past three months only totaled $7.8 million.

"That's been the one part that is lagging. There hasn't really been money flowing into this fight," said Culling. "The frustration is that there is so much money that's in support of immigration, but it won't get off the sidelines."

There will be increased efforts, however, to give cover to Republican lawmakers as the debate moves to the House.

Republicans for Immigration Reform is a super PAC founded by former Bush Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. But the group has remained relatively quiet during the first half of the year (except for this ad backing Sen. Graham).

The group's executive director, Charlie Spies, said that it plans to ramp up efforts in the House. The group will run more ads in select congressional districts, where members may come under fire from conservatives and Tea Party groups for backing immigration reform.

"We believe there is a value to Republicans on the fence knowing that there are going to be people who have their backs when they come out in favor of reform," Spies said. "The shrill minority of people who are attacking them aren't representative of Republicans as a whole, or their constituents."

But don't expect health care levels of ad-spending. Spies, who formerly ran a super PAC that backed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, does not anticipate a flood of political advertising on immigration … at least not this year.

"[O]ur purpose was always to provide air cover to Republicans that get attacked for supporting reform when it matters most," he said. "And that's going to be next year during the election cycle, when people are paying attention."

3. Go on the attack

Of course, there's another way to sway House Republicans: Spend money to attack their stance on immigration. But so far, advocacy and lobbying groups have avoided the negative approach.

"We have not had to do what I think we would do on other issues, which is to say we'll withhold support or support a challenger," said Jeremy Robbins, director of the pro-immigration Partnership for a New American Economy and a policy advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Robbins said that doesn't mean attack ads are entirely off the table. He's willing to embrace whatever strategy makes the most sense. But, for now, his organization is taking a friendlier tack. "We would much rather work with a target than against a target," he said.

There's another reason you might not see ads shaming conservatives who oppose immigration reform: They might not work that well.

While immigration is a core issue for Latinos, it's less important for other groups. So it wouldn't make sense to air ads on a topic that doesn't stir enough voters to action. Plus, attacks could turn off fence-sitting GOP congressmen, according to Spies, of Republicans for Immigration Reform.

"We don't anticipate going on offense at this point," he said. "There are enough persuadable Republicans that can weigh in and we can work with those who are open to a comprehensive approach to reform that its not a productive use of resources to attacking Republicans whose minds aren't going to be changed."