Some GOP candidates still tack right on immigration despite McCain’s rise

Republican congressional candidates are taking tough stances on illegal immigration even though they know that Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain Senate outlook slides for GOP Juan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden Democrats lead in three battleground Senate races: poll MORE’s (R-Ariz.) presidential run could complicate their races this fall.

Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaBottom Line Ex-GOP congressman to lead group to protect Italian products from tariffs Head of Pennsylvania GOP resigns over alleged explicit texts MORE is one of them. The Hazleton, Pa., mayor hopes to unseat 12-term Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D) by highlighting a get-tough immigration stand. Barletta signed an ordinance that made English his city’s official language and allowed fines against landlords who rent out to undocumented residents. He now wants to come to Washington to fight efforts that would grant amnesty to immigrants who are in the country illegally. He laments that his party’s national leaders, McCain and President Bush, last year backed such a bill.


“There was no question I was disappointed in how they are handling illegal immigration, because of the effect … I see it having all across communities across the country,” he said.

Barletta blames illegal immigrants for a crime wave in Hazleton. Those local issues, not his party’s presidential candidate, will determine the outcome of his race, he said.

The problem for Barletta and other illegal immigration hawks is that the issue has not proven to be a winner. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), both opponents of the immigration reform bill sponsored by McCain, did not advance in the presidential primaries. In the 2006 election, anti-amnesty messages also failed to propel Arizona Republicans Randy Graf and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth to victory in their House races.

Barletta’s run promises to be just as tough. When he first ran against Kanjorski in 2002, he lost by 13 points. Back then, however, Barletta had yet to make a name as a national opponent of illegal immigration.

Doug Thornell, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that McCain’s nomination interferes with Republican plans to “demagogue” on immigration in House and Senate races. But he still expects immigration hawks and their allies among 527 advocacy groups to stress the issue and help turn out conservative voters.

“The base of the Republican Party lacks enthusiasm, and Republicans are looking for any sort of way to generate excitement,” he said.{mospagebreak}

Whether illegal immigration will be decisive in the presidential race this summer and fall is unclear. The issue has been among the top three concerns for voters in Republican presidential nomination contests, along with Iraq and the economy, according to exit polls. The Iraq war and the economy are also dominant among Democratic voters, but healthcare has emerged as the third key concern.

Indeed, Republican candidates are likely to focus on McCain’s military service and record on the Iraq war, two things that have kept him in good stead among conservatives. Some are blunt, however, about their opposition to his immigration stance.

“I fully support Sen. McCain; he is an American hero,” said Jim Ogonowski, the Massachusetts GOP Senate candidate who nearly won a special 2007 House race by stressing illegal immigration. “That’s just one particular issue where I will stand up and tell him what I believe.”


Ogonowski, who lost to Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) in a blue-collar district, is facing an even tougher fight this year in challenging Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Despite the long GOP odds of that race, Ogonowski and others will at least keep the immigration debate alive by running for Congress, according to Tancredo. In an interview with The Hill, Tancredo decried the fact that McCain, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have each supported a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Tancredo, who is not running for reelection, said that Republicans in the House, such as Reps. Brian Bilbray (Calif.) and Steve King (Iowa), and perhaps Barletta will need to serve as a counterweight to the next president.

“We’ll have to look at the Congress as the next line of defense,” Tancredo said.

The last line of defense is state government, said Tancredo, who wouldn’t rule out a future run for governor in Colorado.

McCain’s nomination won’t deter the staunchest illegal immigration opponents, said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, an advocacy group opposing amnesty. He said that the hard line taken by House Republicans on illegal immigration has forced some Democrats and McCain to shift their positions. Beck pointed out that freshman Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.) has backed a bill requiring companies to verify that their workers are here legally. Beck also notes that McCain now tells voters that the government needs to secure the borders before deciding what to do with the approximately 12 million immigrants in the country illegally.

“What you’re going to see is him sidestepping, see him dodging [the illegal immigration issue],” Beck said. “That won’t be a case of Republican congressional candidates seeming to be at odds with the presidential candidate.”

Just weeks after announcing his candidacy in February, Barletta has already taken the issue of immigration to Kanjorski in a way McCain can’t.

Barletta has tied many problems in his district — crime, increased local taxes and a lack of jobs — to illegal immigration, prompting Kanjorski to downplay the effect of the issue. Kanjorski also noted that Barletta has received an endorsement from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and was quoted in another newspaper saying, “What David Duke was to civil rights, my opponent has done that with immigration.”

Added Kanjorski: “He’s used that issue the same way Duke used the civil rights issue.”

Kanjorski apologized for his remarks last week, giving Barletta the chance to stress the impact he has seen in his city — and deflect any complications stemming from McCain’s stance.

“The problems of illegal immigration are on the streets and in the neighborhoods in the local communities,” he told The Hill. “We’re the ones that bear the burden of the cost.”