Governor Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin) leads polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. His new immigration views do not, drawing scorn from conservatives and standing at odd with national polling on the issue. At the heart of Walker’s immigration problem is a pendulum swing from a centrist Republican position to a fringe view that’s set him the furthest right of the other competitive primary candidates. How did his position on immigration change, and what is it now?

In 2013, Walker said that he thought it “made sense” to enact a comprehensive reform plan that that would allow undocumented residents a path to citizenship after paying penalties. Critics call this “amnesty,” though the term is incorrect (it’s alternate punishment, not a pardon). At the time, many of Walker’s colleagues supported such a plan. In March of 2015, Walker admitted that he’d changed his position entirely: he no longer supports a path to citizenship for immigrants who have violated immigration law. Other presidential candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) also wavered in their support for “amnesty,” though not as hard. (Rubio, for example, said he’d continue Deferred Action for existing recipients for a limited time while trying to increase border enforcement).  

Then in April of 2015, Walker’s stated a new position. Not only is he set on kicking out those who violate immigration laws, he’s also intent on reducing the levels of legal immigration. Specifically, he argued that legal immigration numbers should drop during recessions.

“When it comes to legal immigration, the economy should drive things. And the number one priority in that process going forward should be American workers and American wages. When times are rough, the last thing we want to do is flood the market, put more workers in at a time when workers are unemployed, wages are low. We need to make sure we put American workers first,” Governor Walker said last weekend at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Spring Kick-Off.

Losing Friends, Making Enemies

It was an anti-business bombshell, and it got him in trouble with Conservatives. Why? Because Walker basically advocated increasing government control over the labor supply, a key import for technology and other industries. That runs against basic free-market principles. At the head of the pack was the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), a pro-business newspaper that’s supported Walker as governor on things like union busting. In their criticism, the WSJ said that Walker’s protectionist were anchored on an economic “fallacy.”

“Economists call this the lump of labor fallacy, which holds that the amount of available work is fixed. If one person gets a job, another loses it. But the addition of new workers into a market, especially skilled workers, can increase the productivity of companies in a way that expands the supply of work for everybody [....] Republicans used to understand this basic economic principle, but the politics of immigration is turning some of them into economists for the AFL-CIO,” the WSJ argued, referencing the anti-immigrant union.

Though Walker’s comments at the Iowa Faith and Freedom event didn’t specifically mention skilled workers (the speech was delivered after the WSJ article came out), earlier anti-immigration comments of Walker’s did. In particular, he indirectly indicated opposition to the current H-1B visa program, which gives work permissions to immigrants skilled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) regardless of economic indicators. That won’t win him any endorsements from establishment Republicans, who swiftly condemned his position.

"I basically think that's poppycock," Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch told reporters in response to Walker’s comments on “protecting workers.”

"We want legal immigration [....] As a party we've always embraced immigrants coming here legally, following the rules. And it's enriched our country immeasurably. It's who we are. It's the fabric of our success," Ohio Sen. Rob Portman told Talking Points Memo.

“I think most statistics show that they fill part of the workforce that are much needed. We have, and I'm a living example of, the aging population. We need these people in the workforce legally," Arizona Sen. John McCain told reporters.

As numerous outlets have mentioned, Walker’s views diverge from those of the Koch brothers, a powerful pair of Republican bundlers who influence over $800 million dollars in campaign contributions. Though they haven’t commented on Walker’s comments publically, there’s little chance now that he’ll win what pundits call the “Koch Primary,” even though he’d been a favored contender for the sweeping endorsement, that all but ensures  that a war chest that rivals the GOP itself.

From Favored To Fringe?

Walker has flip-flopped on “amnesty,” and gone against the party line on a free labor market. There are at least three other factors that increase his general unelectability because of his immigration stance. First, the GOP is looking for a candidate that can win at least a few Latino votes. They don’t want another Romney, who won only 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, and they have Hispanics Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to choose from (not to mention Jeb Bush, who speaks Spanish and is married to a Mexican immigrant). Second, Walker may preside over a state with 85,000 undocumented immigrants that’s on a national border, but he’s not going to be viewed as a “border governor” with a privileged view of immigration policy (as, for example, Susana Martinez or Jan Brewer might). Lastly, Walkers position on immigration -- as of April of 2015 -- is totally at odds with voters of both major parties, as well as independents.

While the country is split on what to do with immigrants in the U.S. illegally, Harry Enten of 538 observes that even Republicans favor legal immigration. The most detailed Pew and CBS polls (which specifically ask about legal immigration) are from 2013, but the margins are clear: the majority of Republicans either favor keeping current immigration levels (33 to 38 percent) or even increasing them (20-22 percent). That is, between 53 and 60 percent of Republicans actively disagree with Walker’s assertion that legal immigration should be reduced.

That’s going to be a hard sell for primary voters and an even harder one for Republican powerbrokers. Though Walker may lead in primary polls right now, serious donors and endorsement-dispensers are too focused on beating Hillary Clinton in the general election to put their weight behind a candidate that might repeat Romney's 2012 performance.