Iraq was clearly the election issue that turned the tide against Republicans, but one issue that many GOP activists thought might save the day ended up a bust: immigration.
Hard-liners in the House stopped comprehensive immigration reform in its tracks this summer, dealing a blow to the White House. Then they argued this was good for Republicans because Americans put illegal immigration at the top of their policy agenda and had no interest in comprehensive reform. Judging from the election results, the hard-liners were wrong.
In several high-profile races where illegal immigration was a key issue, the anti-immigrant candidate lost big. In Arizona, the front line in the immigration wars, Republicans J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf lost handily to more moderate voices. Hayworth, a six-term congressman, once favored a guest worker program but flip-flopped when he sensed bashing immigrants was a surer ticket to re-election.
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In his book "Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security and the War on Terror," Hayworth called for a three-year ban on legal immigration from Mexico, which would devastate the U.S. agricultural community and hurt other industries as well. Apparently voters in Arizona's 5th Congressional District wanted no part of Hayworth's proposed ban.
Graf, a former state representative and member of the extremist Minuteman Project, was even more off base. Graf supported calls to reinstate "Operation Wetback," a 1950s federal deportation program that not only rounded up thousands of illegal aliens but also ensnared some U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Graf's position garnered him only 42 percent of the vote in a reliably conservative district.
In Colorado, Republicans' anti-immigrant stance may have cost them the governor's race in addition to one congressional seat. Rep. Bob Beauprez, the Republican who gave up his seat to run for governor, claimed that illegal immigration would prove to be Democrat Bill Ritter's "Achilles' heel" and spent much of the last few weeks of the campaign hammering away on the issue. But Colorado's agricultural economy is heavily dependent on immigrant workers (including illegal aliens), and Ritter's pro-guest worker position helped him win 56 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, Beauprez's open seat went to the Democrat, Ed Perlmutter, despite Republican candidate Rick O'Donnell's effort to make illegal immigration a central issue in that campaign as well. O'Donnell proposed a bizarre plan to draft boys in their last semester of high school to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border "instead of wasting time in 12th grade," describing his plan as a "society-wide rite of passage into manhood" that would provide a "sense of adventure and risk." Needless to say, residents of Colorado's 7th Congressional District didn't agree.
And perhaps in the most surprising loss of all, Indiana voters rejected Republican Rep. John Hostettler, chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee. Hostettler led efforts to pass a get-tough bill that included a provision to make felons of all 12 million illegal aliens living in the U.S., which was dropped in conference with the Senate. Hostettler who, unlike most Republicans, voted against authorizing the Iraq war was trounced by his opponent, despite campaign help from a number of anti-immigration groups and appearances by anti-immigrant luminaries Phyllis Schlafly and Bay Buchanan.
According to an Election Day poll by Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Doug Schoen, only 8 percent of voters ranked immigration as their top issue, making it, at best, a second-tier issue. Americans want a secure border, but a majority supports comprehensive reform as the best means to stopping illegal immigration.
Americans also want to make sure illegal aliens don't exploit social services and aren't given special preferences. Most importantly, they want to ensure that all immigrants learn English and that government function in English, as Arizona voters demonstrated by supporting initiatives dealing with those specific issues on Tuesday.
Now that the people have spoken, maybe the Congress will finally listen and pass comprehensive immigration reform.