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First thoughts: Immigration politics heats up

Immigration politics heats up with the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Arizona… As with Prop. 187, the Arizona could be a short-term winner for the GOP, but maybe a long-term loser… Meg Whitman straddles the immigration debate -- effectively, so far -- as a new poll shows her virtually tied with Jerry Brown… President Obama to make a controversial recess appointment today… The Steele story continues for its sixth day… Feingold vs. Johnson is a contest worth watching… And West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin to hold presser at 11:00 am ET to discuss filling Robert Byrd’s Senate seat.

*** Immigration politics heats up: The Justice Department filing suit yesterday against Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law reignited a political debate that, as we’ve said before, definitely benefits the Republican Party in the short term but makes things foggy for them in the long run. In our late May NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo poll, 61% said they supported the Arizona law, which is why we saw so many national Republicans and even some Arizona Democrats (like Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who appears on “Daily Rundown” this morning) condemn the administration’s suit. The law even has transformed the contours of Arizona’s gubernatorial race, with Gov. Jan Brewer (R) looking to have a much easier path to victory than previously thought. Indeed, per that same NBC poll, a Republican congressional candidate backing the law beats a Democratic candidate opposing it, 40%-26%.

*** The Prop. 187 comparison: But the long-term political outcome could be a different story, given the fact that Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic group in the country. In the same poll, 65% of Latino respondents -- who were over-sampled in the survey -- said they opposed the Arizona law. In a way, some argue, this could be reminiscent to the Prop. 187 that then-California Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law in 1994. Prop. 187 turned out to be popular in the short term, and it helped Wilson win in a landslide in '94. But as NBC pollster Peter Hart (D) reminded us, Democrats won California just ONCE in presidential contests from 1952 to 1988. But after Wilson’s Prop. 187, Republicans haven’t come CLOSE to winning the nation’s biggest state. It's not even remotely close to being a swing state.

*** Whitman straddles the debate, effectively so far: Yet one Republican who seems to be effectively straddling the divisive immigration debate is California GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman. According to a new Field Poll, Whitman is virtually tied with Democrat Jerry Brown, with Brown at 44% and Whitman at 43%. And get this: “Whitman has trimmed Brown's lead among Latino voters to 11 percentage points, down from 24 points in January, Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said,” per the San Francisco Chronicle. Some of that movement probably is attributed to the Spanish-language TV ad Whitman is running in California, which states that she opposes the Arizona law as well Prop. 187. Yet the other reason for this movement is that the Brown campaign hasn’t done a good job of letting California voters know that Pete Wilson just happens to be the chair of Whitman’s gubernatorial campaign. It's just the latest in a string of strategic blunders that seem to piling up for Team Brown.

*** Recess time! Health-care politics is heating up, too. On its blog last night, the White House announced that President Obama would today make a recess appointment of Dr. Donald Berwick to serve as the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Obama nominated Berwick to serve in that post back in April, but the nomination hasn’t gone anywhere. “Many Republicans in Congress have made it clear in recent weeks that they were going to stall the nomination as long as they could, solely to score political points,” the White House wrote. “But with the agency facing new responsibilities to protect seniors’ care under the Affordable Care Act, there’s no time to waste with Washington game-playing.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell fired back with this statement: “Democrats haven't scheduled so much as a committee hearing for Donald Berwick but the mere possibility of allowing the American people the opportunity to hear what he intends to do with their health care is evidently reason enough for this Administration to sneak him through without public scrutiny.”

*** If Steele goes there will be trouble, but he stays it will be double: The consensus is that RNC Chairman Michael Steele will likely keep his job, although we can report that he is a no-show at conference in Aspen, where he had agreed to be on a panel about the political landscape. (Obviously, with a slew of reporters in Aspen, he decided hunkering down was the best move.) Here’s the front page of the Washington Post: “Michael S. Steele appears likely to weather his gaffe about the war in Afghanistan, perhaps his most significant lapse as chairman of the Republican National Committee. But many Republican leaders have lost confidence in his ability to head the GOP and are working around him to keep it on track for the midterm elections.” Our take: The only way Steele loses his job is if he voluntarily gives it up, and one thing we've learned about Steele is that he's stubborn on this front.

*** Johnson badgers Feingold: Ever since Tommy Thompson (R) passed on challenging Sen. Russ Feingold (D), many political observers -- including us -- turned their attention away from Wisconsin’s Senate contest. But make no mistake: Feingold has a race on his hands against his likely GOP challenger, businessman Ron Johnson. As the AP’s Sidoti wrote yesterday, “Four months before November, public and private surveys show a surprisingly tight race.” Feingold is currently up with a radio ad portraying himself as an outsider who stands up to the special interests, while Johnson is running a TV ad, the Chicago Tribune reports. For the big Senate picture, if Republicans truly add Wisconsin to the competitive list, it only increases their chances for winning back the majority in the chamber. While Nevada and Florida are potential problems for the GOP, the movements in favor of the GOP in California, Washington, and Wisconsin more than make up for it.

*** Which force is greater? The Feingold-Johnson contest is illustrative of this question that could very well determine whether Republicans have an okay Election Night or a great one: Which force is greater -- the overall political climate or the quality of GOP candidates? Because several of the Republican Senate nominees (Johnson, Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, maybe Ken Buck in Colorado) weren't the party's top picks and would be in deep trouble in a regular political year. But this isn't a regular year. First-time political candidates and those who are seen as independents just happen to be some of the top candidate attributes in our June NBC/WSJ poll. On the other hand, phasing out Social Security and allowing workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market -- a position that Paul, Angle, and Johnson seem to share, to varying degrees -- was the worst attribute in the poll.

*** Manchin holds presser: In West Virginia today, Gov. Joe Manchin (D) is holding a press conference at 11:00 am ET to discuss the process for filling the late Robert Byrd’s (D) Senate seat. Per a release, “The governor will not make an appointment during this media availability; however, he plans to discuss the process and answer questions related to the matter.” All the momentum appears to suddenly be with those that want a special election to take place THIS year.

Countdown to AL run-off: 6 days
Countdown to GA primary: 13 days
Countdown to OK primary: 20 days
Countdown to KS and MO primaries: 27 days
Countdown to CO and CT primaries: 34 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 118 days

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