Jewish World Review April 28, 2004 / 7 Iyar, 5764

Robert Robb

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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 expanded.

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.

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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 on immigration.

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 noticed tremor.

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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