Democratic strategists divided on impact of immigration suit

Some Democratic strategists are embracing the Obama administration’s legal challenge to Arizona’s new immigration law, arguing that the long-term political dividends with Hispanic voters outweigh any headaches it may cause for swing-district Democrats in this year’s election.

The Justice Department is seeking an injunction preventing the law from taking effect July 29 on the grounds that immigration enforcement is the federal government’s responsibility and that the Arizona law could impede that duty.

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Arizona’s tough new immigration-enforcement law, which allows police to question people if they think they may be in the country illegally, has sparked a national debate on the already contentious topic of immigration, and the short-term political fallout will no doubt seriously affect both parties.

Before the lawsuit and President Barack Obama’s call for comprehensive immigration reform last week, Latino voters were beginning to rethink their support for the president and question his commitment to their agenda.


While Obama’s approval ratings among black and white Americans remained static over the past six months — at 91 percent and 41 percent, respectively — his approval numbers among Hispanics dropped 12 points, to 57 percent, a Gallup poll found.

At the same time, the majority of the public has expressed support for the Arizona law, several polls have found, a point Republicans will continue to hammer home during the midterm campaign.

The sharp differences in opinion about the Arizona law are dividing political strategists in both parties, particularly those focused on Democrats running in conservative-leaning border-state and Southern districts this cycle.

“If you’re at the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and you’re looking to hold onto some of these seats in swing districts, this is clearly a wedge issue that works for Republicans in those districts,” said Chris Lehane, a longtime Democratic strategist based in California. “But when you take the long view and think about what those districts are going to look like in five to 10 years — it’s pretty difficult to find a place where Latinos are not a growing part of the population.”

Democratic political strategists worried about the impact were reluctant to challenge the president publicly, but several interviewed by The Hill expressed frustration about the timing of the immigration push, coming just as the summer political season is heating up.

“This could kill us in several critical districts,” groused one Democratic campaign aide. “Nice timing.”

In taking a stand on immigration, Obama is trying to appeal not only to Hispanic voters, but also to his more liberal base, which tends to support immigrant rights and legislation providing the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country “a path to citizenship.”

Frank Sharry, who heads America’s Voice, a group that backs comprehensive immigration reform, praised Obama for taking a stand that may reap rich benefits for the party in the years ahead.

“The Obama administration is playing more for the history books than for the midterm elections,” Sharry said.

“Republicans will try to use this to mobilize their base and attract swing voters and there probably won’t be a corresponding mobilization of Latino voters [to Democrats] because of this. The short-term politics do not favor the Democrats … but at some point the Republican embrace of the Arizona law and the politics of hostility toward the fastest-growing group of new voters will be of huge consequence electorally.”

As expected, red-state Republicans and those facing competitive primaries, such as Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, quickly condemned the administration’s legal challenge, but so did Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.), a freshman Democrat who knocked off ethically challenged former GOP Rep. Rick Renzi and is facing a tough reelection fight.

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Kirkpatrick called the lawsuit a “sideshow, distracting us from the real task at hand” — securing the border and fixing the country’s “broken” immigration system.

Republicans on the House Homeland Security and Judiciary committees also panned the Obama administration’s decision to file suit.

“Not only does this lawsuit reveal the Obama administration’s contempt for immigration laws and the people of Arizona, it reveals contempt for the majority of the American people who support Arizona’s efforts to reduce human smuggling, drug trafficking and illegal immigration,” the Republicans said in a statement.

Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and author of Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy, thinks Congress would please voters on all sides of the debate by passing comprehensive immigration reform, but said the lawsuit is ill-advised.

“I don’t think filing the lawsuit against the Arizona law is the best way to do immigration reform,” West said. “It will further polarize the country and is likely to be rejected in court … It’s the right objective, wrong tactic.”

West explained that states have a long history of making their own controversial immigration laws and said the courts will likely respect those precedents.

For some Democratic strategists, failure in the courts doesn’t matter as long as Democrats win in the court of Latino opinion. The lawsuit shows that Obama and Democrats are on the side of Latinos and are concerned about their plight, Lehane said. In the long run, that can only be a net plus for Democrats.

Lehane argues that Republicans are taking a far more risky approach by supporting the Arizona law and perhaps appearing anti-immigrant.

Karl Rove and George W. Bush understood how important immigrants are to the future of American politics and always tried to embrace them. In 2000, Bush won with more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, a record for a GOP candidate.

Nearly 15 years ago, Pete Wilson, then the Republican governor of California, won short-term political gain but alienated the state’s Latino voters for years with his support of Proposition 187, a measure that withdrew all government support from illegal immigrants.

“[The Arizona debate] does remind me of Prop 187,” Lehane said. “Back then, it may have helped Wilson and Republicans marginally, but with the Latino population becoming bigger and bigger, its net effect over time was to make California a very blue state.”