Birthright citizenship debate reverberates in campaign races

The issue is welcome news to some Republican candidates, who have brought the term “anchor babies” into vogue on the campaign trail.

The national debate on the birthright provision of the 14th Amendment is welcome news to some Republican candidates, who have brought the term “anchor babies” into vogue on the campaign trail.

The phrase, a reference to children of illegal immigrants, is catching on as Republican leaders in Washington have voiced support for hearings to examine revising the constitutional provision that confers U.S. citizenship on anyone born in the United States.

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“I think we ought to take a look at it — hold hearings, listen to the experts on it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

Former Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), who is locked in a Republican runoff for Georgia governor, previously introduced a bill in the House that would have revised the immigration law via statute, rather than amending the Constitution.

Deal has made immigration one of the centerpieces of his gubernatorial campaign, vowing to bring an “Arizona-style” immigration law to Georgia and touting that pledge in campaign ads.

“This is an issue that hits a raw nerve with conservatives just about everywhere,” said Deal campaign spokesman Brian Robinson. “Birthright citizenship creates anchor babies, which provide an incentive for illegal behavior.”

In Arizona, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth is seizing on the issue in an attempt to make some noise ahead of his primary with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Hayworth’s challenge from the right, which at one point appeared to pose a real threat to the incumbent, has fizzled in recent weeks and McCain has opened up a double-digit lead.

“I talk about this issue all the time,” said Hayworth. “Out here in the real world, where people bother to actually read the Constitution, it resonates big time.”

He hailed it as “another example of where I stand very clearly and forthrightly” and said McCain is “ill-equipped to deal with the issue.”

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said Thursday that the senator is “open to having hearings” on the issue and dismissed Hayworth’s attacks, noting that “since the compromise of ’07 failed, the senator has made it very clear that we need to secure the borders first.”

The 14th Amendment isn’t exactly a new issue on the campaign trail. Back in May, Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul (R) was one of the first to raise it, saying, “We’re the only country I know of that allows people to come in illegally, have a baby, and then that baby becomes a citizen, and I think that should stop also.”

The issue largely remained isolated to a handful of states and races, but now the GOP leadership has made it a part of the broader midterm conversation.

Democrats are calling it a campaign ploy drummed up by Republicans to rile the party’s base and exploit the immigration issue for political gain. Given the fact that Congress is unlikely to act on immigration reform of any kind this year, much less hold hearings on the 14th Amendment, Democrats are labeling the politics all the more transparent on the part of Republicans.

“I don’t know if that was based on 2010 or 2012,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said earlier this week in response to calls for hearings on the issue from the Republican leadership in the Senate. “But my hunch is it is based purely on politics.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested Thursday that Democrats calling out Republican lawmakers for politicizing immigration are simply dodging the issue.

“Just answer the criticism that this is not a good way to address this. Tell me where I’m wrong,” Graham said. “There are plenty of people in this building that are scared of this issue.”

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that would conduct the hearings, said he has no intention of granting Republicans’ request.

Feingold, who is facing a tough challenge from likely Republican nominee Ron Johnson, told The Hill on Thursday that revisiting the 14th Amendment is “simply not the way to solve the problem.”

But Feingold stopped short of accusing Republicans of raising the issue for midterm political gain.

“I don’t need to impugn any motives,” Feingold said. “This is just an inappropriate way of solving the problem.”

Despite the campaign focus on jobs and the economy, immigration is a potentially dangerous issue for Democrats given it’s one that largely unites the Republican base while dividing many Democrats and independents. Polling also shows a majority of Americans support Arizona’s recently passed immigration law, which the Obama administration has challenged in court.

In the short term, strategists agree that it’s likely good politics for Republicans and their candidates this fall. Between the administration’s lawsuit and the federal court ruling that declared parts of Arizona’s law unconstitutional, it’s another issue motivating an already ginned-up Republican base.

Another benefit is that along with wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion, immigration has proved to be one conservative donors are willing to open their wallets for.

The Republican Governors Association, along with a handful of Republican campaigns, is using Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer as a fundraising proxy. In an e-mail appeal to RGA supporters last week, Brewer said the committee “is the only organization exclusively dedicated to electing governors like me who are not afraid to do what it takes to protect our citizens and make our borders safe.”

In the long run, warned one Republican pollster, the party could be setting itself up for a struggle when it comes to bringing Hispanic voters back into the fold in key states in the West and South where the Hispanic population is shifting the face of the electorate.

For now, said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a leading congressional proponent of immigration reform, the motivation for Hispanics to vote and vote for Democrats “has spread and deepened.”

“The Democrats haven’t done enough to seal the deal with these voters, despite the breathtaking efforts by Republicans to push them away,” he said. “But no one disputes that in the long run, the anti-immigration wing is literally leading the GOP off an electoral cliff.”

J. Taylor Rushing and Bob Cusack contributed to this article.