Virginia Republicans campaigning to keep control of the General Assembly this year are vowing to crack down on illegal immigration. Out of the five states with state elections this November, illegal immigration is hottest as a campaign theme in Virginia, according to several political observers.
But the immigration question is also being raised on the campaign trail by candidates in the races for Kentucky and Louisiana governor and the Mississippi lieutenant governor's contest. Candidates are capitalizing on voter anger over illegal immigration, especially after Congress failed this summer, for the second year in a row, to pass major immigration reforms.
"There's a general frustration on people's part regarding the federal government, that it's not doing what needs to be done on illegal immigration. Illegal immigration is growing, it's costing taxpayers money, it's overcrowding schools," said Susan Stimpson, campaign manager for Richard Stuart , a GOP candidate for Virginia Senate.
Stuart, who is running for the seat of a retiring 29-year veteran of the state Legislature, is promoting measures to let local sheriffs enforce immigration laws by cooperating with federal authorities. His campaign Web site promises he "will not support the use of a single taxpayer dollar being spent on services for those here illegally, including in-state college tuition."
Republican leaders of the Virginia House and Senate unveiled a legislative package in August that would prohibit illegal immigrants from attending Virginia colleges and universities and require local sheriffs to work closely with federal authorities to keep illegal immigrants suspected of crimes in jail.
Other GOP candidates are calling for cutting off a wide range of state benefits now being collected by some illegal immigrants, including workers compensation. Although neither of them are up for election, state Attorney General Robert McDonnell (R) stoked the debate by pushing Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine to let state police take part in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's 287(g) program, which allows specially trained police to enforce immigration laws by alerting federal authorities when they imprison illegal immigrants.
In Stuart's legislative race, the Democratic candidate, Albert Pollard , is pushing his own ideas for cracking down on illegal immigrants and the businesses that hire them. For example, he proposed setting up a statewide database to keep the fingerprints of illegal immigrants who have served jail time; businesses could check the database over the Internet to make sure their new hires aren't in the country illegally.
Still, Virginia Democratic Party spokeswoman Danae Jones criticized Republicans for using immigration as a campaign issue. "Everybody, regardless of partisan affiliation, recognizes what a problem it is," she said. "It is a shame that illegal immigration is so politicized when it's frankly a problem for President Bush."
Elsewhere, Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R), trailing in the polls to Democrat Steve Beshear , recently announced that state prisons would take part in the 287 (g) program. Fletcher said if he is re-elected, he'd push the Legislature next year to allow local governments in Kentucky to take part, too.
Mississippi Auditor Phil Bryant (R), in his bid to become lieutenant governor, proposes ensuring that state contracts only go to businesses that don't hire illegal immigrants. He also wants to require vehicle owners to have a valid Mississippi driver's license to get a license plate and proposes keeping tabs on how many illegal immigrants are apprehended in Mississippi each year. Bryant's Democratic opponent, Jamie Franks , vowed to convene a statewide study to determine how to deal with the influx of immigrants - both legal and illegal - hired to help the Gulf Coast rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
Immigration has been far less of a campaign issue in Louisiana, where an unknown number of Hispanics have flocked to New Orleans and nearby parishes to aid in the clean-up effort. Jason Dore, a spokesman for the state's Republican Party, said after the storm and the exodus of so many residents, "we're thankful for anyone who's coming to New Orleans."
Pollsters say the issue has come up so little, they haven't even surveyed voters about their attitudes on the topic. The election cycle starts with a run-off primary Saturday (Oct. 20) and will include the contest of who replaces Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D).
Bernie Pinsonat, an analyst for Southern Media and Opinion Research , noted that natives of New Orleans weren't losing jobs to the newcomers. And Robert K. Goidel, the director of political policy research at Louisiana State University, said the governor's race has been so one-sided that the heavily favored candidate, U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal (R), hasn't had to answer many tough questions.
But the Republican Governors Association targeted the issue when it touted Jindal , in an ad (click here to view the ad) this summer in which Jindal rejects the idea of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. "We've got to enforce our laws, make sure people coming into our country want to learn our language, our values. We can't lose what it means to become an American," Jindal, who would become the first Indian American governor in the country if he wins, says in the ad.
In New Jersey, immigration has been eclipsed on the campaign trail by ethical issues, after four state lawmakers were indicted this year. Immigration did emerge briefly as a campaign issue, following a public outcry after Newark authorities said they suspected at least two illegal immigrants in the August slaying of three college students. For example, two Republican legislative candidates criticized Gov. Jon Corzine (D) and fellow Democrats for not fighting illegal immigration quickly enough.
The renewed focus on immigration in Virginia comes as the GOP tries to defend its majorities in the House and Senate this year, when all 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot. Republicans hold a four-seat edge in the Senate and an 11-seat advantage in the House of Delegates.
Commonwealth voters have handed Democrats significant victories recently, including the last two gubernatorial elections and last year's high-profile contest between victor Jim Webb (D) and incumbent George Allen (R) that gave control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats.
Pushing an illegal immigration agenda gives Republicans there a chance to distract voters' attention from other issues Democrats have hammered them on, especially in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia.
One of those issues is traffic. Kaine won election in 2005, promising to relieve congestion on the region's clogged roads. Legislative Republicans resisted efforts to pay for transportation improvements with a tax increase, but the deal they struck with the governor proved enormously unpopular as well.
The $1 billion-a-year measure is paid for, in part, by "abuser fees" of hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars that Virginia drivers - not out-of-state motorists - must pay when they're cited for serious offenses.
In one northern Virginia contest, state Sen. Jay O'Brien (R) came under attack in TV ads by Democratic challenger George Barker , who highlighted O'Brien's role as the Senate sponsor of the traffic fine legislation. O'Brien's camp turned to the illegal immigration issue as it responded with a spot questioning Barker's stance on the issue. The Democrat has said police should help enforce existing federal immigration laws and deny bail to illegal immigrants.
Historical trends suggest the 2007 elections in Virginia promise to be low-turnout affairs, because no federal or statewide offices are in play. That means highly charged issues, such as roads or illegal immigration, could play a crucial role in determining whose supporters show up at the polls.