Immigration and SB1070: Arizona Republicans’ Tempest in a Tea Party? 

Wednesday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against immediate enforcement of SB 1070, Arizona’s divisive, draconian immigration clampdown, pending judicial review of the Obama Administration’s challenge to its constitutionality.  

By holding most of this bill in abeyance, by denying closure to the controversy, this injunction ensures that heated haranguing over immigration will remain dominant in the debate with less than a month to go before Arizona’s hotly contested Republican primary.

For all of the fervid furor that immigration - both legal and illegal - arouses in corners of the GOP’s conservative base, in border state Arizona, hardliners’ harping on the issue has yielded merely mixed success with Republican primary voters.  

In the face of a serious primary challenge just one cycle after serving as his party’s presidential standard-bearer, Sen. John McCain has tacked to the right, backpedaling from his once-unabashedly near open-borders stance, a position pronounced by The Washington Examiner’s senior Political Analyst Michael Barone in his Almanac of American Politics to be the celebrated “maverick’s“biggest act of ideological heresy in recent years.”

McCain’s challenger, former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, built a national profile for himself as a hardliner on immigration via Special Order speeches on C-SPAN, and set off to capitalized on it with a nation-wide book tour. His single-issue speaking tour didn’t sit well back in sophisticated Scottsdale, and moderate Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell rode that wave of weariness when he ousted Hayworth from Congress in 2006.

Hayworth’s theatrics are not gaining him much more traction with Arizona’s statewide Republican base. The once-husky Hayworth may have had his stomach stapled, but the slimmed down talk radio rabble rouser is still full of hot air. His fuming that McCain is soft on immigration isn’t helping him crack a ceiling of support.

In 6th Congressional District, challenger Jeff Smith chides incumbent libertarian-leaning Mormon “Golden Boy” Jeff Flake on his campaign website’s homepage for having the temerity to caution that SB 1070 might be “imprudent.”  Despite a “well-scrubbed” Mormon profile and touting an endorsement from Phoenix’s outlaw Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Smith’s anti-immigrant cred isn’t impressing even in this conservative Mesa and Phoenix East Valley ‘burb-based district. Jeff Flake looks like a safe bet for renomination.

Along the Mexican border, Arizona’s 8th district is home to towns like Bisbee, Benson and Dougles, towns featured in datelines of news stories filed from the immigration controversy’s ground zero. These are jurisdictions with public resources are that arguably overtaxed by border-crossing illegals, the “crisis” restrictionists warn will spread nationwide unless “something is done” here and now. Ostensibly, this issue should be of primary salience among voters here, and a non-negotiable litmus test for Republican primary electorate.

Electoral history has failed to confirm that reasonable assumption. This district repeatedly returned the NAFTA-boosting former Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe. Kolbe teamed up with Flake and McCain (along with the late “liberal lion” Teddy Kennedy and Rep. Luis V. Guitierrez, elected by primarily Chicago Chicano constituents) to introduce a bill that would integrate some illegal immigrants into the guest worker visa program.  This high profile on the side of moderation drew a primary challenge. Kolbe fended off state Rep. Randy Graf (who bumbled bumptiously right into the Daily Show’s trap) by a comfy 15 points.  

Next cycle, Kolbe retired. Graf took another stab at it and outpaced two Kolbe-approved opponents to capture the nomination, but he pulled in roughly the same percentage and raw vote total as he did two years before. He was easily dispatched by the business-friendly Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in November. Graf’s totals underscore the limits of immigrant-bashing’s appeal even among the conservative Republican base at the issue’s physical focal point.

This year, insurgent Tea Party favorite Jesse Kelly is taking a hard line on immigration and pulling within upset range of the NRCC’s favorite candidate, state Sen. Jonathan Paton. The Tuscon Weekly posits that Kelly’s momentum may be thanks to Graf’s endorsement: “Graf may have lost the general election, but he’s set the tone for this year’s crop of candidates.” (A third candidate, Brian Kelly, deserves a note for his admirably pro-growth solutions to the immigration conundrum.)

Recent Republican primary results have thrown cold water over the assumption that anti-immigrant agitation is the key to capturing Arizona’s GOP nominations.  Competitive Enterprise Institute policy analyst (and fellow Washington Examiner Blogs contributor) Alex Nowrasteh sketches out in WSJ the competitive disadvantage that SB 1070 forces upon Arizona employers. A business-friendly approach has trumped immigration hysteria for majorities of Arizona Republican primary voters, to date.

Will this year marking a boiling point? Watch Arizona’s Republican primary results for evidence if this week’s injunction has finally stirred up enough outrage for candidates exploiting SB 1070 to ride it to victory.

Even in this poisoned environment, will obsession with immigration be contained to a mere a “Tempest in a Tea Party.”

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