Stephen Dinan, Washington Times, May 19
Immigration is turning into an election battleground among Republicans, with several challengers running primary campaigns against leading congressional supporters of legalizing illegal aliens.
Rep. Christopher B. Cannon, Utah Republican and a prominent legalization supporter, failed to win 60 percent of the vote at a Republican nominating convention a little more than a week ago. Now, he faces a primary next month against Matt Throckmorton, a former state legislator who is running hard on the immigration issue.
“It’s the biggest issue in the race, without a doubt,” Mr. Throckmorton said.
Immigration emerged as an election issue particularly in California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s opposition to driver’s licenses for illegal aliens helped him win the governorship last year.
Now, the issue is playing a major role in some Republican primaries.
“What’s really new is people challenging Republican incumbents,” said Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, an organization that lobbies for stricter immigration controls.
Although Utah might not be the most likely place for immigration to become the defining point, Arizona is an obvious target, where two Republican incumbents are fighting off challengers.
Rep. Jim Kolbe is being challenged by state Rep. Randy Graf, and Rep. Jeff Flake faces Stan Barnes.
Mr. Kolbe and Mr. Flake, along with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, are sponsoring a broad guest-worker program that would allow a path to citizenship for most illegal aliens in the United States, and Mr. Cannon has introduced a bill to allow illegal aliens working in some agricultural areas to gain legal status.
Those programs amount to amnesty for illegal behavior, say their challengers.
Utah’s debate is slightly different than its southern neighbor, where illegal immigrants die in the desert trying to cross the border, saddle taxpayers with higher health care and education costs, and, particularly in Mr. Kolbe’s Tucson district, tramp across ranchers’ property day and night.
“Quite frankly, this issue has people down here pretty much just fit to be tied, particularly with the role the congressman has played in the past and the direction he’s taken on the guest-worker bill,” Mr. Graf said.
Toni Hellon, Mr. Kolbe’s campaign manager and a member of the state legislature in Arizona, agreed that immigration will be the battleground issue.
“I think if it weren’t for that issue, he would not be running, because he really has no other issue,” she said.
But she predicted that Mr. Kolbe will win the primary because of his 10 terms in office, his senior position on the House Appropriations Committee and what he has been able to accomplish in adding more Border Patrol agents.
“I do not believe that a majority of Republicans will vote against Jim Kolbe on this issue,” she said. “It is on their minds, they are aware of it, don’t get me wrong, but I do not believe Jim Kolbe will lose a majority of votes because of it.”
She said she sees “somewhat of a national trend” in the series of primaries being contested over the issue, but that what’s new this time is that national advocacy groups, such as Numbers USA, are organized, are pushing the issue and, in some cases, are even running their own ads on the issue.
That’s been the case particularly in Utah, where a group called ProjectUSA put up billboards with stark messages such as “Congressman Chris Cannon wants amnesty for illegal aliens.”
That, and three days of radio ads paid for by the Coalition for the Future American Worker, for which Mr. Beck is spokesman, did have an effect, said Joe Hunter, Mr. Cannon’s chief of staff.
Speaking before the convention, he said although immigration isn’t the only issue in the campaign, they heard from people over the amnesty charges and had to craft a response.
“The more we talk to folks, the better it is, and they understand we’re not talking about amnesty — we’re not talking about bringing millions of folks into the U.S.,” he said.
Mr. Cannon hasn’t backed away from his plan, nor have Mr. Kolbe or Mr. Flake — but all three bristle at the notion that their proposals are amnesty. Besides, they argue, there is a need to fill jobs, and legalizing those who fill those positions is in the interest of national security.
“The status quo is not working. We have a system that’s broken. The market is demanding labor, and that demand is being met by illegal immigrants, and we ought to have a system by which that demand can be met and, at the same time, bring illegal immigrants out of the shadow so we know who they are,” Mr. Hunter said.
Mr. Kolbe and Mr. Cannon are still the strong favorites over Mr. Graf and Mr. Throckmorton, and Mr. Flake is considered safe in his race against challenger Mr. Barnes.
Mr. Cannon, for example, won 57 percent at the convention May 8 — just 3 percent shy of the 60 percent threshold needed to head off a primary.
Still, Mr. Beck said the results should shock legislators who support amnesty.
“The odds are still with [Mr. Cannon], given the percentage at the convention and he’s an incumbent, but here’s a four-term congressman who basically gets a 43 percent vote of no-confidence from his own party’s regulars,” Mr. Beck said. “For those of us who are making the argument to members of Congress that the fact that amnesties are being considered at all is a sign of great disconnect with the American population — this helps confirm that.”
The issue also is playing out in open races, like the Republican primary for North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, and in general election races, such as South Dakota’s Senate seat race between incumbent Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat and the chamber’s minority leader, and Republican John Thune, and Texas’ 32nd Congressional District race where two incumbents, Republican Rep. Pete Sessions and Democrat Rep. Martin Frost, were thrown together by redistricting.
Immigration-control groups have run ads in both of those general election races.