Call it the “Arizona effect.” Immigration got plenty of attention as the 2010 political season got underway in earnest, with primaries in 12 states this week and other races thinning out to the top contenders.
SB 1070, the new hard-line Arizona law that tasks state and local police with immigration enforcement, seemed to create a line in the sand, and candidates were pushed to decide on which side they stood.
Many successful Republican candidates from South Carolina to Nevada embraced SB 1070 during the primaries, perhaps with an eye on polls that show the law, set to go into effect later this month, remains popular among a broad swath of voters.
“I think Arizona’s become the new touchstone for conservatives,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice.
Marco Rubio, the conservative who is the Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida, first said he had concerns with the law, but later re-calibrated his stance and said he backed it.
"Rubio's an opportunist, whichever way the mood is flowing, that's the way he's going to go," says Francesca Menes, organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition. Rubio forced aside Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican nomination.
However, there is a big risk for Rubio and the Republican Party in taking this stance, adds Sharry of America’s Voice. Candidates’ lunge to the right on immigration during primaries may backfire during general elections in November. That’s particularly true in states with a large Latino vote like Florida, Nevada and California. A study of the California electorate by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) suggests that Republicans stand to lose significant Latino support with their primary season embrace of a harsh Arizona-style immigration platform.
In 2006 many Republicans in Congress backed the hard-line realignment of immigration policy contained in the Sensenbrenner Bill, triggering mass protest marches. “Latino voters who registered after the 2006 midterm election are significantly less likely to be Republican than those who registered in the two previous periods,” says the study. “Only 16% of those Latinos are Republican, compared to 23% of those who registered between 2002 and 2006.”
In California, this time, gubernatorial candidate and former E-bay boss Meg Whitman won her primary contest. But her swing to the right on immigration earned her enduring ill will from the likes of Service Employees International Union Vice President Eliseo Medina.
Demonizing immigrants might have brought her a primary victory but it’s “short term” says Medina. “Immigrants —particularly Latinos—are unlikely to reward this shortsighted gamesmanship in November,” he says.
Perhaps there is less risk to a get-tough approach in the southeast, where immigration is still a relatively new phenomenon, and where Latino voters constitute an infinitesimal sliver of the electorate.
In South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who won the most votes (but still faces a runoff) for the Republican nod in the gubernatorial race, embraced Arizona’s approach to immigration.
In fact, Haley co-sponsored a copycat bill in South Carolina’s legislature and proudly touts this fact in stump speeches. Haley, the daughter of Sikhs from India, cites her parent’s journey in explaining why she wants to emulate Arizona’s law.
“They came here legally, they put in the time, they put in the money, they did what they’re supposed to, it makes them mad when they see illegal immigrants coming to this state,” she says in a video of a stump speech posted on her website.
As of 2008 U.S. Census figures, South Carolina’s population is only 4.1% Latino and 2.9% foreign-born. But the prominence of immigration in South Carolina’s gubernatorial primary shows how this debate has penetrated into every corner of the country.
Immigration politicking rocked even congressional primaries far off the cable news radar.
In a primary for New Jersey’s sixth House district along the state’s northern seacoast, Anna Little, mayor of Highlands, New Jersey, beat an establishment candidate.
Little attached the Tea Party banner to her campaign, and made immigration a centerpiece of her platform.
We should “repatriate all immigrants who are not in the U.S. legally right now” she said at the start of a campaign speech about a week ago, according to website Politicker New Jersey.
Little eked out a victory by a few hundred votes, though she may face a recount.
In a House primary in Virginia’s eleventh district, in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, the virtually unknown businessman Keith Fimian, who took a far more strident stance on illegal immigration than his more connected Republican opponent, managed an upset.
That race, like Little’s race in New Jersey, Haley’s in South Carolina, and Rubio’s in Florida, fits a certain mold: a conservative insurgent drawing on Tea Party support and hype to dislodge a more connected, and moderate, party-line opponent.
That was also the pattern in the primary for a U.S. Senate seat in Nevada.
There, self-billed Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle, won the Senate primary and will face off against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November.
In campaigning, she espoused support for Arizona’s law and even supports making English Nevada’s official language, according to the Reform Immigration for America campaign.
Immigration was not the decisive factor in these races. Political analysts and poll-watchers point to the sour economy and resulting anti-incumbent discontent as the main factor in the tumultuous nature of this week’s primaries, particularly among Republicans who are still smarting from the passage of health care reform.
In fact, not all congressional primary candidates were successful crusading on immigration, showing that even with Arizona as a backdrop, this issue alone can’t carry a candidate.
John Aslanian, who hoped to become the Republican candidate in New Jersey’s ninth House district near New York, bought radio ads highlighting illegal immigration and looped them on right-wing talk radio. He was beaten decisively by another Republican who did not make as much of a fuss over immigration.
The real question now is how this post-Arizona switch to the right on immigration will affect the nation’s political map in November’s general elections, and beyond.
Only the ballot box will reveal the final answer.