Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants

A few weeks back I criticized a Joe Battenfeld column in which he argued that the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants would be “a gift” to Charlie Baker. In that post I implied that it may actually be more useful to the Democratic candidate(s) for governor. Thanks to some insightful analysis by Professor Cunningham, I’m having second thoughts about that.

Basically, Battenfeld argued that vocal opposition to driver’s licenses for “illegals” would help Baker rally social conservatives. I argued that rallying social conservatives on this issue would create blowback and make it easier for Democrats to tie Baker to the harsh anti-immigrant posture of Republicans on Capitol Hill. While this may well be true, in speculating that the Democratic nominee could take up the cause of undocumented immigrants and use it affirmatively against Baker I failed to consider the impact of such a move on Democratic legislators on Beacon Hill, for whom the issue lacks a clear political upside.

Professor Cunningham was quoted extensively this morning in an excellent and well researched article about the lack of progress of immigrant-friendly legislation on Beacon Hill over many years, a situation that seems at odds with the state’s “deep blue” reputation. What Professor Cunningham makes clear is that there is very little electoral upside for Democrats in the state legislature to champion the cause of folks who don’t vote or to spend political capital on an issue that isn’t on the radar screens of average voters in the state. In other words, it’s not that Bay State voters are overwhelmingly opposed to immigrant friendly proposals like driver’s licenses or in-state tuition, it’s that most voters are unmoved by these issues. The voters who are moved by these issues are much more likely to be against these immigrant friendly proposals than for them. It is, from the average Democratic legislator’s perspective a distraction and an unnecessary risk to champion the interests of undocumented immigrants. It’s unlikely that a Democratic gubernatorial nominee would be well served by putting the party’s rank-in-file legislators in an awkward position in the fall campaign.

Professor Cunningham’s analysis is a reminder that Democrats on Beacon Hill are professional pols, not activists, whose electoral security depends on the faithful stewardship of their constituents’ material interests, not on faithful partisanship. The inability of Republicans to gain traction in state legislative elections is at least partially due to the fact that Democratic incumbents are highly responsive to the interests of the business communities in their districts.

Interestingly, just as it is probably too risky for Democratic legislators to champion the interests of undocumented immigrants, it is probably too risky for business leaders in the state to sponsor and support Republican candidates for the state legislature, both because of the overwhelming majorities enjoyed by Democrats on Beacon Hill and because of the possibility that Republican legislators will be pulled to the right on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. Mainstream Massachusetts Republicans are fiscally conservative, but not socially conservative. Social conservatism, frankly, is “bad for business.”

About Jerold Duquette

Jerold Duquette is an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of Regulating the National Pastime: Baseball and Antitrust and has published articles and book chapters on campaign finance reform, political parties, Massachusetts politics and political culture, public opinion, and political socialization. Professor Duquette lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife and four children.
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