Primaries in key states this week may have made it seem like smart politics to oppose a smart policy like comprehensive immigration reform. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, the godmother of her state’s severe immigration control law, won the Republican ticket for the November general election. And Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a former immigration reform advocate, gave voters a rhetorical whiplash by grabbing onto immigration hardliners to stave off a primary challenge from a fierce immigration opponent.
But take a closer look.
Beneath the aura of party primary victories this year are the ashes of failed, scorched-Earth strategies against comprehensive immigration reform that all candidates should heed—regardless of party affiliation.
Politicians are again being reminded that the harshest rhetoric on immigration does not always win the approval of voters who prefer solutions to the broken immigration system. If they ignore the warnings, backlash will come from Latino voters in the November general election. And these voters represent the fastest growing segment of the electorate and a group that is increasingly being alienated by those who talk negatively against immigrants or those who might look like immigrants.
The harsh and condescending tone of the immigration debates in Arizona and across the country is the reason Latino voters named immigration as their top concern this year, even more frequently than unemployment and the high cost of living, according to a poll released last month by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Political analysts agree that how a candidate talks about immigration—or tries to avoid the subject—will go a long way in determining the level of Latino voter support in key states.
Conservative political strategists understand the equation: a campaign without Latino support in key states equals defeat. But the candidates themselves are just beginning to understand the math, despite years of forewarnings. The chasm between conservatives and Latino voters meanwhile grows wider.
Latinos’ alienation is so great that one prominent supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, Republican lobbyist Ana Navarro, surveyed the remains of Florida’s primaries and wondered whether her party could recover by November. Florida’s two GOP candidates for governor botched the immigration issue so badly—ratcheting up the anti-immigrant rhetoric to new heights—that voters in Latino-voter rich Miami-Dade County largely stayed away from the polls.
“What now?” Navarro asked after gubernatorial candidate state Attorney General Bill McCollum, who began with the support of the Florida Hispanic establishment, finished second to millionaire Rick Scott. McCollum’s mortal mistake was to cave into Scott’s draconian position on immigration and propose a measure even tougher than Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which is now being challenged in court on the grounds that Arizona overstepped its bounds by imposing new immigration restrictions in an area that lies under federal jurisdiction.
Not only did McCollum reverse his immigration stance, he did so without the advice and consent of influential Hispanic leaders. Some quit his campaign after the policy switch while others spoke out in dismay. One of them was Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American whose congressional district covers most of Miami. The result was a very low voter turnout for the primary—only 17 percent in Miami-Dade County compared to about 21 percent in other Florida counties.
One thing is clear: a Republican candidate will not win a statewide primary or general election without strong support from Hispanic Republicans in Florida. And Cuban-American voters—a long-time reliable base of the Florida’s GOP—are now outnumbered by Democratic-leaning non-Cuban Hispanic voters, making the Latino electorate truly up for grabs in Florida.
Arizona is the epicenter of the fractious immigration debate this year. The immigrant bashing that has occurred around S.B. 1070 has intensified interest among Arizona Latinos, who comprise 15 percent of the electorate. That dynamic makes the November gubernatorial contest between Brewer and Democratic nominee Terry Goddard the main race to watch on the issue of immigration.
In the U.S. Senate race, McCain’s toughest election challenge may be behind him after trouncing party rival J.D. Hayworth by 24 points in this week’s Arizona primary. The contest was ugly, as Hayworth carried the anti-immigrant banner for conservatives groups such as the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC and the Tea Party, while McCain tried to shed his record as a previous sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
The incumbent senator’s victory does not mean he handled the issue well. Indeed, his credibility emerged in tatters. It rather shows that the harshest anti-immigrant rhetoric usually does not work.
Some political analysts say that Arizona is poised to become the next California because of the immigrant bashing that has occurred around S.B. 1070. Golden State conservatives were punished at the ballot box after an anti-immigrant law was enacted—an episode that today’s candidates in California have not forgotten.
The legacy of the Latino vote in California will forever be marked by the election of 1994, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, sponsored the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 on the state ballot. The initiative passed and Wilson won re-election. But his actions spurred a record number of Latino immigrants to naturalize and vote in the following elections, resulting in Wilson’s party being doomed to defeat in every presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial election for 16 years, with only one exception.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman ignored that valuable lesson this year. She bent to conservatives’ demands on the immigration issue and even turned to Wilson, her campaign chairman, to bolster her pledge that she would be tough on immigration enforcement.
Whitman is now spending millions heading into the November election on bilingual advertising to court the Latino vote, a move that has made her political motivations exceedingly transparent. And she beat back a move by conservatives at her party’s recent state convention to pass a resolution in favor of Prop. 187 and Arizona’s S.B. 1070, the anti-immigration law.
But if Whitman is the cellophane candidate, her Democratic rival Jerry Brown is the invisible one in the Latino community. Brown’s less-than-aggressive outreach to Hispanic voters in the Golden State has led to the open question of whether he has a “Latino problem.”
Perhaps after this election season, officeholders can temporarily set aside their urges to pander and focus on practical solutions on immigration. That will certainly be demanded of McCain, who previously championed comprehensive immigration reform and enjoyed overwhelming support of Latinos in his home state.
After all, voters want solutions.
Gebe Martinez is a Senior Writer and Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.