By Cameron Joseph - 03/13/13 11:22 PM EDT
South Carolina is fast becoming ground zero in the fight over immigration reform.
A coalition of pro-reform groups on Wednesday launched a major advertising and grassroots campaign in the state to argue for immigration reform — and to commend Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for his efforts on its behalf.
The state has taken on a crucial role in the political battle over reform — and not only because of its senior senator.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration panel, and will play a central role in shaping any immigration deal in Congress. The state’s culture, demographics and politics also make it one to watch as the issue plays out in a Republican Senate primary.
“South Carolina is important both because Sen. Graham has been part of the group of senators who have been courageously taking this issue on ... and you also have of course Trey Gowdy,” said Richard Land, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“It’s up to us to convince [Gowdy] that the majority of the members of his district support comprehensive immigration reform, and we believe they do.”
Land is involved with the Evangelical Immigration Table, a group that launched radio ads on Christian radio stations across the state on Wednesday. The group argues, in biblical terms, why Christians should support immigration reform.
Other groups starting a push in the state include Republicans for Immigration Reform, a new group formed by Carlos Gutierrez, former President George W. Bush’s Commerce secretary, and Charlie Spies, who ran Mitt Romney’s super-PAC.
They’re joining Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonpartisan business group that supports immigration reform, to run ads in the state praising Graham for his work.
“When you look at South Carolina, it is such a leader for the rest of the country on a lot of these issues. It has agriculture, it has business, it has faith, it has tourism,” said Jeremy Robbins, the director of Partnership for a New American Economy.
“South Carolina is a great platform to start, and certainly the rest of the country is looking to see what Lindsey Graham is going to do.”
The deeply conservative state could serve as a test case for how far the GOP has moved on immigration.
South Carolina passed a controversial immigration law similar to Arizona’s in 2010. And while Graham has long pushed for immigration reform, other powerful politicians in the state, like former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), have been vocal opponents.
South Carolina has a fast-growing Hispanic population — and its economy relies heavily on immigrant labor for jobs ranging from tourism to agriculture.
The state is also home to a disproportionate number of evangelical Christians, a group that is being heavily targeted by pro-reform conservatives.
If Graham can easily win his primary, or even avoid a serious challenge, it will be taken as a sign to undecided Republicans in other conservative states that they can support reform without jeopardizing their political careers.
Hence, the contrasting ads.
“Today’s immigration laws are not written for today’s South Carolina businesses,” Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce President Bryan Derreberry says in the new ad calling for reform.
“South Carolina businesses will not be able to continue to grow without real immigration solutions. Sen. Graham is right on target fighting for immigration reform today,” Derreberry continues. “He knows how important it is for South Carolina businesses — he knows that for South Carolina to compete in the 21st century, we have to be able to update our immigration laws. A modern economy needs modern immigration laws, and Sen. Graham gets that.”
That’s a decidedly different view from the one NumbersUSA took in its six-figure ad buy.
“Who elected Lindsey Graham to demand millions more immigrant workers when so many South Carolinians are jobless?” the group asks in its ad.
“Who elected Sen. Graham to insist on more green cards for foreign workers when returning veterans can’t find jobs? Who elected Graham to demand amnesty and welfare for millions of illegal aliens? Who does Lindsey Graham represent?”
The ad campaign launched jointly by Republicans for Immigration Reform and the Partnership for a New American Economy costs $60,000.
“Our focus isn’t to have a 1-to-1 shouting match [with NumbersUSA]. The focus is to show deep and broad support in the different business sectors in SC and the faith community,” Spies said.