Why Scott Walker Moved Right On Immigration

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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After being denied the Senate Budget Committee chairmanship as a platform for his populist immigration views, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions has struck back — potentially in the form of Scott Walker’s presidential campaign.

Walker has both liberal and conservative tongues wagging after telling Glenn Beck he’s “talked to Senator Sessions and others out there” about the impact of mass unskilled immigration on American jobs and wages. He even included legal immigration alongside the illegal variety.

Breitbart reported, “Walker is now the only potential or declared GOP presidential candidate to discuss the negative effects of a massive increase in legal immigration on American workers.”

That’s not entirely true. Rick Santorum channeled Sessions on immigration last year.

“We also have to face the reality that what’s hurting American workers, maybe more than anything else, if you’re an unskilled worker in America, is a huge amount of immigration that’s going on in this country,” Santorum told a group of Iowa social conservatives last summer. “And I’m not just talking about illegal immigration.”

Even Mike Huckabee, who has tended to be loose on immigration, is talking about the impact of foreign labor on American wages, though he confines his critique to illegal immigration. “By securing the border and protecting American workers and their livelihoods, we’ll finally help every American earn his or her maximum wage,” he said.

With apologies to Huckabee and Santorum, however, Scott Walker has a more plausible path to the Republican presidential nomination. What’s behind his apparent shift — if it does, in fact, signal a substantive policy shift on Walker’s part — the same day the pro-immigration Koch brothers expressed their strongest sympathy yet for his candidacy?

The Wisconsin governor has been leading Jeb Bush in Iowa and New Hampshire while remaining competitive in the national polls. But Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have all officially jumped into the race and threaten to eat away at Walker’s conservative hegemony.

Consider the two most recent national polls where Walker actually trails Bush. ABC News/Washington Post has Cruz winning 12 percent of the vote, with Walker only one point ahead. Paul, Rubio and Huckabee are each just below double digits.

The latest CNN poll has Paul and Rubio winning 11 percent each, a point behind Walker. Huckabee is at 9 percent, Cruz is at 7 percent.

Walker’s biggest advantage is that he’s been able to consolidate conservative support, which usually fragments and factionalizes. This has kept him even with Bush, and at times has allowed him to run ahead of the former Florida governor. The rise of Republican candidates to his right threatens to undermine this dynamic.

Yet Rubio, Paul and even Cruz are all vulnerable on immigration. Rubio’s problems are the most obvious, because he was part of the Gang of Eight. Paul and Cruz have opposed amnesty, but are supportive of expanding immigration generally and like most of the 2016 field have signaled openness to some pathway to legalization or citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Walker has already stepped in it on amnesty more than once. This gives him an opportunity to clarify his immigration position while getting to the right of Rubio, Cruz and Paul.

This political need emerged as Jeff Sessions has increasingly shifted the immigration debate away from illegality and ethnicity toward numbers, skill levels and the impact on lower-skilled American workers.

“What we need now is immigration moderation: slowing the pace of new arrivals so that wages can rise, welfare rolls can shrink and the forces of assimilation can knit us all more closely together,” Sessions wrote in The Washington Post (emphasis his).

Sessions has demonstrated a willingness to defend these views even in the face of a strong bipartisan pushback — of the kind Walker can now expect. Walker will face questions about his sincerity, since this new rhetoric contradicts previous statements he’s made on the subject, and an angry Republican donor class.

Walker will be tied to protectionists, xenophobes, population control-supporting environmentalists, eugenicists, you name it. Can he take the heat, making an argument that has generally been exiled to Washington’s backbenches since the death of Barbara Jordan in the 1990s?

According to a recent Gallup poll, 84 percent of Republicans are dissatisfied with current immigration levels and most want less immigration.

They have the ear of at least one senator. Now maybe they have a presidential candidate, too.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.