WASHINGTON — Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions says the GOP should wave goodbye to Wall Street, and bet on support from middle-class voters, including tens of millions of people earning $30,000 to $50,000.
“The elites are failing America, they’re failing the people of America. … My party, the Republican Party, needs to sever itself from the elite consensus, we need to break from it,” he told a celebration for fifth anniversary of the Tea Party Patriots group, held Thursday evening in Washington, D.C.
“We can tell Wall Street, ‘We love you’ … but we’re going to be representing Americans by the millions,” he told the audience.
The populist shift is needed, Sessions said, because Republican candidates and their consultants have failed to persuade low-income swing voters that GOP leaders care about them.
“These workers, these Americans, these citizens, are not happy with President [Barack] Obama — they don’t want to be on food stamps. … That’s a vote we can get back,” he said.
The speech marks another step by Sessions to promote his populist reform agenda to the GOP’s base and business-friendly leadership.
But it’s not clear how far Sessions can take his reform message.
He’s made few steps so far to build a national following or recruit a team to help him participate in the 2016 Republican primaries.
His disavowal of Wall Street will close donors’ checkbooks, as will his skeptical comments on trade. But he’s unlikely to gain donations from working-class people, nor from the wealthy but cautious professionals who fear progressives’ scorn.
His base is in Alabama, and his soft-spoken style won’t help him win fans in the Midwest, home to millions of election-winning potential GOP supporters.
But he’s playing a central role in rallying public opposition to the business-backed push to sharply increase immigration. He’s given plenty of speeches, published op-eds and even jumped into the House immigration debate on whether House Speaker John Boehner should work with Democrats and Obama to craft an immigration-increase bill.
He’s worked with tea party and outside groups, which extends his reputation and support.
“America is not an oligarchy. … A Republic must answer to the people,” he said in November, when he spent a morning at a press conference organized by Americans4Work, an non-partisan group that wants to reduce immigration.
“The Senator’s advocacy of prioritizing support of American citizens appeals to American workers both in his home state and across the entire U.S. … We believe there are tens of millions of American citizens of every race, sex and political persuasion who agree with Sen. Sessions,” the group said in a statement.
But he’s also building up a broader pitch.
He’s pushing to convert welfare programs into job preparation and training programs.
In Thursday’s speech, he called for a better energy policy, an end to Obamacare, plus a balanced budget, tax reform and a fair trading policy that doesn’t “allow our wealth to be drained abroad.”
“Free trade does have to be fair trade,” he said Thursday.
He’s working with other GOP leaders, notably a fellow reform conservative, Utah Sen. Mike Lee. He’s worked with possible 2016 candidate Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to oppose the Senate immigration bill, but he hasn’t worked closely with another 2016 candidate, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has voiced support for large-scale immigration.
But it is difficult to see him going down the 2016 road, say university experts.
“The question is how pragmatic the Republican base is going to be in 2016,” said Larry Sabato, at the University of Virginia.
“The nation’s swiftly changing demographics are continuing to shore up Democratic chances in the Electoral College. … I doubt the [base would] choose a Deep South, very conservative senator like Sessions [who] would be a very hard sell in November,” he said.
“He can win forever in Alabama. … I don’t think he would have much appeal beyond the Deep South,” said Merle Black, at Emory University. “People with big money are not going to invest him if they don’t think he’s serious candidate in a serious campaign.”
Sessions’ office dismissed the suggestion that his advocacy for GOP reform could evolve into a 2016 candidacy.
“Senator Sessions’ focus is on Alabama, on running for re-election as Alabama’s Senator, and on serving Alabama’s citizens,” said the office.
Sessions is running hard for re-election in Alabama, but is not facing a Democratic opponent. During his recent tour of the state, said Sessions, voters said were increasingly alarmed by Obama’s willingness to ignore real laws and to implement imaginary laws.
The immigration debate is the issue that has pushed Sessions away from the GOP establishment.
“I never wanted to be engaged in this fight … [but] somebody has got to say something,” he said.
For 40 years, “we have an really unchecked record of immigration. … Wages have fallen, the workforce has shrunk and welfare rolls have surged,” he said. For example, from 2003 to 2013, job growth was matched by immigration, so there was no net increase in employment among American natives, he said.
Business groups are now trying to double immigration, he said.
The Senate bill passed an immigration bill in June, with support from a minority of the GOP senators. If it becomes law, the Senate’s immigration bill would provide an amnesty to at least 11 million illegals, double legal immigration to two million people per year for a decade and double the annual inflow of professional, white-collar and blue-collar guest workers to 1.3 million. In the national job market, that inflow adds two immigrants and one guest worker for every four Americans who turn 18.
If the Senate bill becomes law, the resident population of university-trained guest workers would rise above one million, putting downward pressure on the salaries available to new medical, education, management and media graduates.
Sessions quoted John Rowe, a former chairman and CEO of Exelon Corp., who is backing the Senate bill because it would provide foreign workers for American companies. “Different businesses want different kinds of people. A restaurant may want waiters and cooks, a hospital wants nurses and doctors, a university wants physicists, a business like Exelon needs more engineers,” Rowe told an interviewer on Chicago Tonight in early 2013.
“Business people don’t get to dictate … [that] ‘We need more workers at the wage we want to pay,'” Sessions said. “Someone needs to say, ‘Sorry, Mr. Zuckerberg … forgive me, we don’t agree.’ … We have to get the national policy based on the national interest,” he added.
“Would not the sensible conservative thing to do, be to slow [immigration] down a bit to let wages rise?” he said.
“We believe in immigration, we’re not trying to stop all immigration,” he said, adding that the selective immigration systems in Canada, Australia and New Zealand helps those countries’ citizens.
With less immigration, “wages would begin to rise, and we wouldn’t need a government law to set wages,” he said.
The Democrats’ lockstep support for the business-backed immigration increases creates a political opportunity for Republicans, he said. “Is it not time we made the Democratic Party, which voted unanimously [for the Senate bill], accountable for the unpopular polices they’ve been pushing on behalf of the special interests?”
“We can build a conservative majority in the country,” Sessions told the tea party meeting.