President Obama on Monday formally announced that Thomas Perez was his pick for labor secretary, setting up a potentially bruising confirmation battle. But this time the damage may spread to both sides of the aisle, hurting the GOP just as it embarks on a much-ballyhooed reboot of the Republican brand.
For the GOP, whose rebranding effort is partly aimed at winning over minority voters, the timing could not be worse. Perez is loathed by some on the right for his perceived pro-immigration positions, and his nomination could spark an ugly intra-party battle over the issue.
Even before Obama made the nomination official, some conservatives were already railing against the pick. Perez heads the Department of Justice's civil rights division, which for years was fraught with "deep ideological polarization," as a report from one watchdog group put it. His work on immigration cases — like the department's lawsuit against notorious anti-immigration enforcer Sheriff Joe Arpaio — has made him a villain on the right, with critics accusing him of being a "radical, race-bating" extremist. Michelle Malkin encapsulated that sentiment in a post knocking the nomination, calling Perez "Obama's Nominee for Secretary of (Illegal Alien) Labor."
In addition, his department came under fire for allegedly dropping a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panthers for political reasons. That claim was dismissed before Perez even joined the division, though he has still been faulted for his handling of the aftermath.
An extended debate over Perez's record would almost certainly result in a discussion of immigration policy as a whole, highlighting the deep divisions within the GOP on that issue. The party leadership has made it clear they are eager to craft a more centrist message, but some members remain vehemently opposed to that idea.
The Republican National Committee released a withering "autopsy" on Monday that concluded the party had to do far more to woo minority voters, particularly the nation's growing Latino population. As part of a major rebranding, the RNC nominally endorsed immigration reform and announced a $10 million minority outreach effort.
Yet that effort will be complicated if party members go rogue during the confirmation process, and insist on a long, contentious fight to block what would be Obama's only Latino cabinet member. Judging from the intense battle over Chuck Hagel's nomination to serve as defense secretary, which played well politically for Republican senators with the conservative base, it's more than likely that a fight is in store over Perez, too.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has already announced that he plans to place a hold on the nomination, ensuring Perez's record will get a thorough review. And Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ariz.), a staunch opponent of amnesty and looser immigration laws, slammed the nomination as "needlessly divisive" and accused Perez of "aggressively [seeking] ways to allow the hiring of more illegal workers."
The party's rebrand has already run into opposition from prominent conservative voices, with Rush Limbaugh panning the autopsy report and urging Republicans to disregard it. An internal fight over immigration, played out publicly in the confirmation process, could further undermine the national GOP's drive to craft a more inclusive message.