The Magazine

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.

Meanwhile, even as Republicans painted themselves into a xenophobic corner, they inadvertently cast the Democrats as the party of pragmatism and problem-solving. Few Democratic candidates sought this role. Few if any, given the climate, wanted to run on the Senate bill's guest worker or earned legalization provisions. And some, particularly in the South and Midwest--Tennessee Senate hopeful Rep. Harold Ford Jr. and Nebraska senator Ben Nelson were among the more prominent--tried instead to out-tough their Republican opponents. But once pinned with the label "pro-reform," most Democrats had little choice, and many rose to the occasion. Incumbent senator Maria Cantwell made a persuasive case in Washington state; Jim Webb took a similar line in Virginia. And if anything, the harder the job and higher the stakes, the better these sometimes reluctant reformers performed--nowhere more surprisingly or impressively than at the epicenter of the immigration debate, in Arizona.

It would be hard to imagine a tougher test. More illegal immigrants enter the United States by way of
Arizona each year than come through California, Texas, and New Mexico combined. Human smugglers and their accomplices have driven state crime rates to the top of the national rankings. And unlike almost everywhere else in the nation, a majority--6 out of 10 Arizonans--told pollsters that immigration was one of the top issues determining how they would vote in the midterms. Still, or maybe because of this, Arizona became the place where candidates--all of them Democrats, unfortunately--showed Americans how to talk effectively about immigration reform.

Gov. Janet Napolitano set the tone. She didn't denounce the fence or other border enforcement--in fact, she led the way, over a year ago, in calling for deployment of the National Guard on the border. She talked tough about smugglers; she repudiated amnesty. But she also insisted relentlessly that border enforcement was only a first step toward the solution: comprehensive reform of the kind proposed by the Senate. The more firmly she held to this tough but pragmatic line, the more frenzied her opponent grew--and as he promised more and more draconian enforcement, her lead only widened.

Other Democrats around the state were soon borrowing from the governor's playbook: Incumbent senator Jon Kyl's opponent Jim Pederson, Rep. J.D. Hayworth's challenger Harry Mitchell, and little-known state senator Gabrielle Giffords, running against the self-described Minuteman candidate, Randy Graf, in the eighth congressional district, which runs along the Mexican border. As Election Day approached, the contrast between these Democrats and Republicans wasn't soft versus hard, as the House leadership had hoped. It was tough versus ugly--and polls showed voters, especially Hispanic voters, very clear about which approach they liked better.

The results, in Arizona and elsewhere, speak for themselves. Janet Napolitano won handily with 63 percent of the vote. Randy Graf lost, 42 percent to 54 percent, and so did J.D. Hayworth, 46 percent to 51 percent. Another leading House hawk, John Hostettler, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, was drummed out of his Indiana district. Jon Kyl squeaked by, but his margin of victory was not what he had hoped it would be in September. And not even the crassest anti-immigrant grandstanding could save Rick Santorum or the Colorado state house. Worst of all, looking to the future, the share of Hispanics voting for Republicans dropped to about 27 percent from about 38 percent in 2002.

A survey conducted the weekend before the vote by the Republican polling firm the Tarrance Group helps explain this surprising tilt. (Full disclosure: The poll was commissioned by the Manhattan Institute and the National Immigration Forum.) According to Tarrance, there was little if any immigration wedge effect: Only 11 percent of the public said they were going to vote on the basis of their views about immigration. One in four conceded that their feelings about the illegal influx were driving them to the polls, but an astonishingly large percentage of this group eschewed an enforcement-only policy: Thirty-eight percent said they preferred a comprehensive solution along the lines of the Senate bill. As for the larger electorate, asked to choose between two candidates, one for enforcement alone and one in favor of a comprehensive package, 57 percent of likely voters preferred the broader, more realistic solution.

Will Republicans learn from this? Will the country? The results of the 2006 midterms are not a mandate for comprehensive reform--far from it. Still, they point the way toward change, opening the political space for better, more pragmatic policy by proving that it can be defended on Election Day. Randy Graf once boasted foolishly that if he couldn't win in Arizona, he couldn't win anywhere. And by the same token, if immigration pragmatists can triumph in Phoenix and Tucson, they should be able to win in any state.

It will still take a bipartisan majority to pass immigration reform. Democrats and Republicans will still have to compromise to get it done. And this may or may not happen in the 110th Congress. But one thing is clear and must be fixed: The Republican party has maneuvered itself onto the wrong side of the immigration issue. What it--and the country--needs is for reformers like President Bush and Sen. McCain to take up the issue again and rescue the GOP from the restrictionist corner it has backed itself into.

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.