House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) isn't happy about Rep. Steve King's (R-Iowa) racist and inaccurate statement. He strongly condemned King's comments characterizing the majority of young Latino immigrants as drug smugglers, calling them "hateful" and "ignorant." However, Boehner stopped short of saying whether he would discipline King further. When asked whether he would use his powers as speaker to remove King from the House Judiciary Committee, the Ohio congressman would only comment, "I think I've made myself very clear when it comes to Mr. King." Boehner must be aware of the GOP's dismal standing with Latinos, but perhaps he doesn't want to treat King too harshly for fear of riling up the base.
For his part, King stood by his insulting remarks, taking refuge in ... the Bible (why do Republicans quote the scriptures when they're in trouble?). On the House floor Thursday, King compared himself to Jesus, saying that, like Jesus, he had the right to "face his accusers." He continued, "that principle remains today in our law that we have a right to face our accusers. And when he said 'ask them, they were there, they can tell you,' he's facing his accusers and demanding they testify against him rather than make allegations behind his back."
King's lack of contrition may irritate Boehner and the party leadership, but unless threatened with tangible action, King is unlikely to change his tune. Republicans insist that not all of them hold these attitudes and King's comments should not be used to paint all Republicans as racists. They're right; not all Republicans say these things, but it doesn't matter. In politics, perception is reality, and for an increasing number of Latinos, the anti-immigrant sentiments of Representative King and others are coloring their perception of the GOP as a whole.
But of course, while the offensive statements of some members are hurting the Republican brand, their inaction on immigration reform speaks even louder than their words. And Latinos are paying attention. Contrary to what some believe, Latinos not only do want immigration reform, they are prepared to hold House Republicans accountable if they kill it. According to a poll by Latino Decisions, 60% of Latino midterm voters believe immigration reform should be Congress' first priority. Not only that, should House Republicans block reform, 72% of Latino midterm voters would view the GOP less favorably.
If Republicans like King fail to heed those polls, this one should serve as a wakeup call. According to a brand new poll, 65% of voters in King's own district support a pathway to citizenship. Even more surprising, 51% of Republican voters also support a pathway to citizenship.
At this point, it seems hard to imagine that King will change his mind, even if he risks losing re-election. Some House Republicans are going to oppose reform no matter what. But as speaker of the House and a leader of his party, Boehner has to move forward on this. If he doesn't, his party's image will take yet another hit with Latinos, a rapidly growing demographic. The damage may not be enough to cost them the House next year, but it certainly could hurt their chances in 2016. Boehner and other Republicans should think carefully about the future of their party; on their current course, they are heading for electoral irrelevance.