In late September 2011, Rick Perry was riding high. Just a month and a half after joining the race for the Republican presidential nomination, polls showed the Texas governor leading the field by a wide margin. And it wasn’t just one poll: Perry was in the midst of a six-week stretch in which he led every public poll conducted by a media organization.
But then his opponents started scrutinizing his record on illegal immigration — and a seemingly innocuous bill Perry had signed a decade before. That measure, a federal version of which supporters dubbed the DREAM Act, allowed undocumented immigrants who came to Texas as children to pay in-state tuition to attend college.
“The American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws and are here in the United States illegally,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said at a Sept. 12, 2011, debate in Tampa, Fla. “Of course we do not give in-state tuition credits to people who come here illegally,” former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney chimed in.
A week and a half later, at another Republican debate, this one in Orlando, Perry fought back: “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” he said.
It was the beginning of the end for Perry’s campaign. The Texas governor led one more poll and then began an epic downward spiral. By the time he forgot the name of the third federal Cabinet department he would eliminate, at a debate Nov. 9 (“Oops”), national polls showed him languishing in the single digits.
Perry’s collapse demonstrated the potency of illegal immigration within the Republican Party. Even with the House Republican leadership and such conservative favorites as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on board, immigration hard-liners in the House have succeeded in blocking a bipartisan Senate immigration bill.
Although Republican candidates can survive other breaks from party orthodoxy — whether it’s Sen. John McCain of Arizona on campaign finance reform or Romney on health care with an individual mandate — immigration remains a third rail.
Perry’s downfall, as well as the likely death of immigration legislation in Congress, makes Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to sign a New Jersey bill similar to the Texas legislation all the more interesting. Far from running from the issue, Christie is embracing the new law, and the changes he inspired. Although he signed it in private two weeks ago, Christie will hold a public signing ceremony at a later date, his press office said.
The measure’s success was no sure thing. Until the day before he signed, Christie maintained that he would veto the legislation without important alterations.
Christie issued a conditional veto of the state legislature’s version, removing a section that would have made students eligible for tuition grants; the legislature quickly voted again to pass Christie’s version.
“This is what compromise looks like. Sometimes it’s quiet. Sometimes it’s loud,” Christie said at a news conference Thursday.
During his re-election campaign this year, Christie said he supported allowing in-state tuition for so-called DREAMers. And with Republicans desperate to do better among Hispanics, Christie stands out: He received 51 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 45 percent for his Democratic opponent.
Polling suggests that even Republicans are taking a more conciliatory view of illegal immigrants since Perry’s run for office. Still, should Christie decide to run for president in 2016, his rivals are likely to make a point of bringing up this legislation.