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Senators to Watch on Immigration

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
McConnell, left, and Cornyn are both up for re-election in 2014 and have been taking some of their cues from their states’ junior senators.

If there weren’t serious political skin in the immigration game, the Senate would not even be debating a framework to overhaul the system this week. But as it stands, senators are set to begin the formal deliberations Tuesday on a bipartisan framework.

And while passing legislation — or failing to do so — could have repercussions for the Republican Party nationally, individual senators of both parties are certain to face ramifications in their home states.

Here is a list of the senators to watch during the immigration proceedings and the political pressures they face back home:

Dean Heller, R-Nev.

Heller is, on paper, a perfect target for backers of the immigration bill: a lawmaker from a western state with a burgeoning Hispanic population who has shown a willingness to play ball on bipartisan issues.

Earlier this spring, Heller, who was appointed to the Senate in 2011 and won a full term last year, flirted with supporting a bipartisan background check agreement before backing away at the last minute.

But likely more important than Heller’s legislative history are the current political demographics of Nevada, a now-purple state that went to President Barack Obama in 2012 by 6 points. According to exit polling, 19 percent of the presidential voters in the state were Latino, with 71 percent of Latinos voting Democratic.

Ted Cruz, R-Texas; John Cornyn, R-Texas; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Perhaps there are no more fascinating in-state duos in the Senate than the Texas and Kentucky delegations. McConnell and Cornyn are the No. 1 and 2 Republicans in the Senate, respectively, and Cruz and Paul are two of the leading conservative voices who have brief, but strong, track records of being pains in leadership’s side.

Cruz and Paul have hinted at larger national ambitions, with Paul expressing more openness to an immigration rewrite than Cruz. Cornyn and McConnell — both up for re-election in 2014 — have been taking cues from their junior senators. Cornyn, for example, was one of only three senators to vote against then-colleague John Kerry’s bid to be secretary of State. Cruz, of course, was one of the others.

Texas is a state that for the moment is solidly red, but it’s also a place where Democrats hope they can soon find themselves in the mix, largely because of the growing Hispanic population.

Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa.

Toomey, the former Club for Growth president, has emerged in the past few years as one of the GOP’s top deal-makers in the Senate, though admittedly, in this political climate, that’s an easier title to acquire than it used to be.

As CQ Roll Call reported in April, Toomey was a lead co-sponsor of a failed background check bill and his push on the issue won him favor with many moderates at home — something political consultants already are saying he will need to win re-election in 2016.

Rob Portman, R-Ohio

The potential for Portman, who has met with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to discuss changes to the bill, to back the bipartisan measure will no doubt be of interest in his next political showdown — be it for the Senate or White House. He is a possible presidential contender, was on Mitt Romney’s vice presidential short list in 2012, and is due to face voters in 2016 for re-election in the swing state of Ohio, which has voted for the presidential winner every four years since 1964.

Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; Mary L. Landrieu, D-La.; Kay Hagan, D-N.C.:

These three senators are ones to watch on nearly every major piece of legislation that comes up for a vote over the next year, and immigration is no different. Pryor, Landrieu and Hagan are three of the most vulnerable senators up in 2014, and — not including Virginia — they’re the last three Senate Democrats from the South.

Pryor and Landrieu both voted against the 2007 immigration bill. Pryor and Hagan were two of five Democrats who voted against the DREAM Act in 2010.

They’re all running in states Obama lost, while highlighting their independence from the national party.

Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

The first-term senator’s role in both crafting the bill and selling it to conservatives was critical to an immigration bill having any reasonable chance of passing.

The potential 2016 presidential candidate essentially bet his near-term political future on championing a proposal that could be palatable to both skeptical Republican members and the growing bloc of Hispanic voters. GOP concerns over border enforcement and a path to citizenship for those already here threaten the bill’s viability, while Rubio’s standing in the Republican primary field will likely depend in part on the messaging that emerges from either the bill’s success or failure.

John McCain, R-Ariz.; Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

McCain and Flake are 25 percent of the “gang of eight” and 100 percent of the Arizona delegation for good reason: Arizona is a red state moving toward purple thanks to a growing immigrant population and a migration of voters from other regions to the desert state.

Though Arizona went to Mitt Romney by 10 points, Republicans are anxious about the state’s political future. Eighteen percent of the state’s voters in 2012 were Latino, with 74 percent of those voters breaking toward Obama. More than a quarter of those who voted were under the age of 30.

Border security also will be a significant issue for these two, as Arizona borders Mexico directly and would be at the receiving end of much of the government’s efforts. Immigration issues already are a sensitive subject in Arizona, where the state government in 2010 enacted SB 1070, the broadest and most stringent anti-immigration legislation in the nation.

Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Among the gang of eight senators who crafted the bill, Graham is the only one up for re-election in 2014. While his final support for the legislation is not in doubt, the political ramifications of his leadership in the effort remain an unknown.

Graham entered the midterm elections as the Republican senator most vulnerable to a potential tea-party-inspired challenge to his right. So far, he’s avoided a serious threat, but one could still come.

Still, his recent remarks make it sound like he’s more concerned about how his party fares in the next presidential election. Graham told reporters last week that if the bill falls apart and Republicans catch the blame for it, “we’re toast in 2016.”

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