Jewish World Review April 28, 2004 / 7 Iyar, 5764
Arizona to become test market on immigration as a political issue
Arizona is about to become a national test market for the potency of
immigration as a political issue, particularly in Republican primaries
Republican Congressmen Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, along with Arizona Sen.
John McCain, are prominent sponsors of a guest worker proposal. Both have
primary challenges in which immigration will be the key issue.
A practical case can be made for regularizing the status of current illegal
immigrants and increasing legal opportunities for immigrant workers in the
future. But politically, it's not currently a winner.
A strong majority of Americans believe that existing levels of immigration
are too high, and that future immigration needs to be restricted, not
That's a particularly strong sentiment among Republican primary voters.
President Bush has proposed an approach similar to that of Arizona's
contingent, and opposition among Republican voters supposedly runs at about
4 to 1, with a high level of intensity.
Abortion and guns are proven issues in Republican primaries. Pro-life
candidates and 2nd Amendment fundamentalists have a clear advantage.
Although voter sentiment on the immigration issue is well charted, the
extent to which it actually influences voter behavior is unknown. The Flake
and Kolbe primaries may help answer the question.
Kolbe's opponent, state Representative Randy Graf, comes to the issue
honestly. He has a consistent record as an anti-immigration activist, and
is one of the principal supporters of the Protect Arizona Now initiative,
which seeks to cut off public services to illegal immigrants.
Graf has a broader conservative brief against Kolbe, including abortion,
gay marriage and Kolbe's alleged support for pork spending. But he expects
immigration to constitute 75 percent of the campaign discussion, at least
on his end.
There's at least a hint of political opportunism in the deployment of the
immigration issue against Flake by his primary challenger, former state
legislator Stan Barnes.
The criticism of Flake's unwillingness to seek special appropriations for
the district by the East Valley Tribune and some area business leaders
seems to have enticed Barnes to enter the race. But Flake's principled
refusal to be a bring-home-the-bacon congressman probably wins him more
Republican primary votes than it loses.
Barnes, unlike Graf, is a latecomer to the immigration issue. In fact,
prior to becoming a candidate, Barnes actually weighed in with a commentary
opposing the Protect Arizona Now initiative.
In it, he indicated that attempting to stem the immigration tide was
futile: "As long as citizens of Mexico, Central America, and for that
matter any other economically forsaken country have no hope at home, they
will come to where the hope is. America. No law can stop this. No policy
can change deeply held human nature."
Nevertheless, immigration is his best chance against Flake. And now Barnes
is a secure-the-border candidate whose first television ad hit Flake hard
The saliency of the immigration issue in both races would be heightened
considerably if Protect Arizona Now makes the ballot. Conventional wisdom
is that it will fall short. But Graf told me that the Federation for
American Immigration Reform, a national anti-immigration group, had kicked
in $100,000 to pay circulators. And when a national organization puts in
that kind of money, odds are that it is in for whatever it takes.
Otherwise, the hefty initial investment might go to waste.
Even if the initiative qualifies, the incumbents are clearly favored. Both
will likely outspend their opponents considerably.
Kolbe has always blanketed his Southern Arizona district with personal
attention. And despite the high-profile social issues, he has, overall, a
decently conservative voting record. He has a lifetime voting rating of 75
percent from the American Conservative Union, but only 15 percent from the
liberal Americans for Democratic Action.
Flake has been underestimated as a political force, and if a Republican
primary, particularly in the East Valley, generally goes to the more
conservative candidate, he'll be tough to dislodge.
A victory by either Graf or Barnes would be a national political
earthquake. Even a strong showing based on the immigration issue would be a
Their challenge might also renew Democratic interest in the two races.
After all, Republicans only have a four-percentage point advantage in
Kolbe's district, with an independent registration of 23 percent.
And the only time a Democrat has captured Flake's strongly Republican
district was in 1992 when Stan Barnes challenged another Republican
incumbent, Jay Rhodes.
JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.
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