Immigration reform nicked in primaries

When congressional strategists contemplated the schedule for consideration of immigration reforms, they must have forgotten to consult the political-party primary calendar. Just as the Senate started making progress toward immigration reform during March and April, some of the early primary states started debating the issue in a manner that is now jeopardizing solutions.

When congressional strategists contemplated the schedule for consideration of immigration reforms, they must have forgotten to consult the political-party primary calendar. Just as the Senate started making progress toward immigration reform during March and April, some of the early primary states started debating the issue in a manner that is now jeopardizing solutions.

Many Republicans seem certain that immigration is growing in importance and control over electoral outcomes. That widespread belief has become a critical factor in Congress’s inability to reach a compromise on immigration reforms this year.

Members of Congress don’t expect to get beat by this pesky issue, but they do recognize that niche issues can help weak challengers catch fire and cut their victory margins. This has prompted some incumbents to play it safe, avoiding entanglement with the immigration mess.

Even members without an election can be affected. If candidates in other races in their states are debating immigration, then the topic gets in the local news stream. This, in turn, causes citizens at voter forums or reporters at press conferences to ask where incumbents stand on immigration. It creates awkward moments.

I noted this phenomenon first this year in Texas. Our primaries were very early, in March. For the first time ever, illegal immigration became a hot topic and many Republican nomination seekers at every office level sought to exploit the issue. This doubtless had a spillover effect, even in D.C., where Texans running the country heard that something was different. The explosions of emotion over immigration probably made a few Texans think twice about walking point on the issue.

A similar indirect effect is occurring in Tennessee. There you have a fierce battle between three quality GOP candidates seeking to replace Republican Bill Frist in the U.S. Senate. In the early stages of that contest, Republicans Ed Bryant, Van Hilleary and Bob Corker didn’t have much to say about immigration. The campaign debate seemed more about taxes, spending, abortion and other traditional party-primary issues.

But lately, immigration has become a key issue. Even the more moderate candidate in the field, former Chattanooga mayor and businessman Bob Corker, has found himself on the hot seat as reporters ask whether he’s ever hired illegal workers. Corker has even shifted his immigration position to a stance more tolerable to the party’s right wing.

When the three Republicans were each asked recently whether they support “President Bush’s guest-worker program,” all three responded negatively. Bill Frist is bound to be keeping track of this and being reinforced in his conviction for a heavy dose of enforcement before worrying about worker registration.

Mike DeWine, a member of the Judiciary Committee fashioning the Senate’s immigration plans, just ran the primary gantlet in Ohio with two opponents who were nicking him on the issue. GOP challengers David R. Smith and William G. Pierce advocated tougher border-control measures and tried to link DeWine to Ted Kennedy’s immigration plan.

Even though DeWine’s two competitors spent less than $50,000 combined while he spent $2.5 million in the primary, the challengers garnered about 30 percent of the vote. For a proud incumbent senator who wants to impress his colleagues, it wasn’t a stunning showing.

Do other senators believe that DeWine fumbled the immigration issue? Was immigration even a factor? Who knows for certain? But primary elections like this are having a chilling effect on the reform process. It makes me think that bolder solutions are more likely to be reached in September, after most of the primaries are over.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.