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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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.