An illegal immigration backlash is seeping into state election races hundreds of miles from the Mexican border. But candidates taking a hard line aren't necessarily prevailing.
Democratic candidates for governor in two of the hottest flashpoints in the immigration debate — Arizona and Colorado - led their challengers by double digits in recent polls. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), who infuriated the Republican Legislature by vetoing eight bills targeting illegal immigrants this year, leads her challenger, Len Munsil , 67 percent to 24 percent, according to a week-old Arizona State University poll . And in Colorado, where immigration exploded as a major issue in the final days of the legislative session, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter leads Republican Bob Beauprez 52 percent to 33 percent according to an Oct. 27 poll by Denver TV news station KUSA.
"The conventional wisdom was Democrats would get burned on (immigration), but what's interesting is that's not happening in places like Arizona, which is ground zero" in this debate, said Chris Dorvall, a Democratic pollster who runs the Web site Immigration2006.org that tracks how immigration is playing out this election cycle.
Candidates running for governor and other state offices hundreds of miles from the Mexican border are debating building a border fence, increasing deportations and cutting services to illegal immigrants as the Nov. 7 election approaches. Voters in states such as Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Oregon and Wisconsin are being inundated by campaign ads featuring the specter of illegal aliens crawling over barbwire fences. A record 53 percent of Americans ranked immigration among their top three concerns this election, according to a poll released last month by the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports strict immigration controls.
But in Arizona and Colorado, the only two states where voters will decide several immigration ballot measures, the issue is not playing out along party lines, political experts said.
"Immigration consistently ranks as the number one issue for Arizonans, but we're not seeing it as a litmus test for any one candidate," said Fred Solop, a political scientist at Northern Arizona University and director of the Social Research Laboratory, which conducts polls on Arizona races.
Arizona's border is the nation's busiest entryway for illegal immigrants, accounting for two-thirds of all border arrests last year. Voters face four ballot propositions Nov. 7 targeting immigrants. The most controversial, Proposition 300, would keep illegal immigrants from receiving day care funding or in-state college tuition. It was put on the ballot to close legal loopholes in the 2004 voter-approved Proposition 200, which was intended to bar illegal aliens from all state services. The other three ballot measures would deny undocumented immigrants bail if they're charged with a felony, prohibit them from receiving punitive damages in a civil lawsuit and make English the official language for all state business.
Napolitano's opponent, Munsil, a lawyer and Christian conservative activist who helped found the right-leaning public policy group, The Center for Arizona Policy , has never held elected office. Munsil lists immigration as his number one issue on his campaign Web site under the heading "Secure the Border Now!" But he has been unable to narrow Napolitano's substantial lead.
Munsil spokesperson Vernon Parker said immigration might not be the deciding factor in the race, "but when voters go to the polls they will ask themselves why is the state of Arizona consistently rated worst in the country for crime and rated number 50 for quality of education? All of that is in some way tied to the cost of illegal immigration."
Political experts say that Napolitano has been able to appeal to moderates in both parties with her practical approach to illegal immigration while hardliners on the issue have been dogged by political gaffes and missteps. One of Napolitano's most outspoken critics, state Rep. Russell Pearce (R), who led the charge against illegal immigrants in the state Legislature, is now fighting for his legislative seat after catching heat in recent weeks for using the derogatory term "wetback" and for forwarding email articles from a white-supremacist publication to his campaign supporters.
Pearce said he inadvertently forwarded the emails, but refused to apologize for his statement supporting the 1950's federal plan to deport illegal aliens called "Operation Wetback".
Another immigration hardliner, former Arizona state Rep. Randy Graf (R), who helped form the citizen border-control group the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and is now running for Congress, trails his opponent Democrat Gabrielle Giffords by 12 points, according to a Reuters/Zogby poll released Nov. 1. Unlike Graf, who supports closing the border and deporting all illegal aliens, Giffords supports a guest-worker program and path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
"All candidates have to reassure their public that they support border security, but otherwise the candidates who tap broader issues are being favored throughout all the state's races," Solop said.
Solop said that although Napolitano has been criticized for waffling on immigration, her move in 2005 to declare a state of emergency over illegal border crossings and demand that Washington station National Guard troops there and pay for them, helped redefine the issue as a federal problem, which resonated with voters.
In Colorado, an attack ad campaign by Republican gubernatorial candidate Beauprez backfired when it was discovered that information used in the ad to attack Democratic candidate Ritter on immigration was illegally obtained. The ads claimed that Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, offered a lenient plea bargain to an illegal immigrant who went on to commit a sex crime in California. But the ad was pulled after allegations that a federal immigration agent illegally used a national crime database to search for the man featured in the ad.
Although the ad flap brought immigration to the forefront, state Democrats have made it much less of a wedge issue than was anticipated, said University of Colorado political science professor Dr. Anna Sampaio.
Five months ago immigration threatened to dominant Colorado's midterm elections when the state Supreme Court struck down a proposed constitutional amendment to ban state services from illegal immigrants that would have been on the November ballot. Republican Gov. Bill Owens lambasted the court ruling as politically motivated, and he threatened to call the Legislature into a special session to put the measure on the ballot. The move came as Republicans were battling to regain control of the state Legislature that had been taken over by Democrats two years ago, and as Democrats were eyeing the governor's mansion after eight years of Republican control.
However, the Democratic-controlled Legislature outmaneuvered the governor by passing a comprehensive immigration-control package instead of sending the issue to voters. Although the Legislature did send two measures to voters — one that would bar employers from deducting the wages of illegal immigrants as an expense and another directing the attorney general to sue the federal government over immigration enforcement — Republicans did not get a harsh ban on services to illegal immigrants on the ballot.
"The Democrats' strategy on immigration was brilliant and they effectively diffused it as a campaign issue in most of their legislative races," said Sampaio, who predicted after the election that Democrats would likely have control of both the legislature and governor's mansion for the first time in 44 years.