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A Wedge Too Far

The immigration issue didn't work.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By TAMAR JACOBY
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TURN ON A TELEVISION anywhere in America last month, and you were sure to come across a campaign ad talking tough about immigration. Democrats and Republicans, in border states and deep in the heartland: Everybody was doing it, and the spots were among the harshest of the campaign season. The A-word--amnesty--was a staple. So were calls for cracking down on the border. And there could be no mistaking the mood, or rather the two parties' shared assumption about the public's mood. The only question was whether Republicans would succeed in riding that anger to victory on Election Day--whether immigration would indeed be the wedge issue of the 2006 midterms.

No one knows how much money was spent on these ads or the websites and mailers that went with them. But the candidates might as well have poured their dollars down a drain. Long before the votes were counted, tracking polls showed that the issue wasn't "working"--wasn't energizing voters or closing the gap between Democratic frontrunners and their GOP opponents. The worse things grew in closely contested races, the more desperately many failing Republicans tried to play the "illegal" card: Rep. Bob Beauprez running for governor in Colorado, Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and some dozen struggling Republican congressional candidates in the Midwest and Southwest were among the shrillest. But the gambit didn't work. In race after race, even Democrats under attack managed to maintain or increase their leads. And by Election Night, the conventional wisdom of October lay in shambles.

Immigration was the dog that didn't bark. It did not prove an effective wedge issue. And as far as could be determined, it decided few if any contests. No congressional or gubernatorial candidate otherwise poised to win was defeated primarily because of his or her views on immigration. No more than one or two, if that many, struggling to catch up managed to ride it to victory. And the most stridently restrictionist candidate in the country, Arizona congressional hopeful Randy Graf, who ran a campaign based almost entirely on immigrant-bashing, went down in flaming defeat.

This wasn't for lack of trying by immigration naysayers--activists, candidates, or the Republican party establishment. The GOP leadership, particularly in the House, started planning their wedge campaign over a year ago. The party's cooler heads--in this case, the president, Sen. Bill Frist, Sen. John McCain, and the 21 other Republicans who voted for the Senate's bipartisan reform bill--argued strongly against a polarizing approach. Better to grapple with the problem, they urged--what the public wants is a solution. But the wedge players were more interested in political advantage. So instead of working with the Senate to enact law, they spent the spring and summer teeing up the issue for the fall campaign, casting a problem that in fact divides both parties as a contest between monolithic blocs: tough Republican enforcers and soft Democrat reformers.

Struggling candidates and activist PACs were only too happy to play into this scenario, generating some of the nastiest ads in recent campaign memory. The 600-plus page Senate bill was reduced to a single sound bite: More than two dozen spots misleadingly claimed that it would pay Social Security benefits to illegal aliens. Democratic candidates who had not been anywhere near the Senate vote or even endorsed the bill were pilloried for its contents. On one particularly unsavory website, Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow was pictured in a sombrero, bobbing back and forth to Mexican music, over a text that thanked her in Spanish for what it implied was an un-American vote for the package.

Still other ads aimed directly at immigrants, calling them, among other things, "sneaky" intruders, "stealing" American jobs and taxpayer dollars. More than one Republican flyer mixed photos of Latino workers and Middle Eastern terrorists; several spots dwelt ominously on mug shots of convicted felons. Perhaps the ugliest commercial, out of North Carolina, showed a Latino man clutching his crotch, followed by an image of the American flag in flames: "They take our jobs and our government handouts," the voice-over ran, "then spit in our face and burn our flag." Far-right restrictionist groups--the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Minuteman PAC, Bay Buchanan's Team America PAC--were responsible for some of this demagoguery. But the national Republican Senatorial and Congressional committees were not ashamed to put their names on far too much of it.