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GOP immigration rhetoric absent from campaigns (so far)

Anti-immigration rhetoric helped propel Republicans in 2010. But today, much of that rhetoric has disappeared. Many of the hottest charges were debunked, once-critical players pushed away from the debate, and, as the GOP deals with the reality of overwhelmingly losing the Latino vote, a quickly growing voting bloc, congressional Republicans are making an immigration push.

“It became a very popular issue [in 2010], if you wanted to become elected to just about anything,” said David Berman of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, citing the wide public support for state immigration-enforcement efforts.

This was especially true in governors’ races in places like Arizona and Florida. But four years later, the tough talk on immigration is nearly absent from the early stages of the gubernatorial races in the same states.

“It caused a lot of flak,” Berman said. “A lot of people who supported it have suffered.”

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed her state’s controversial immigration-enforcement measure, SB1070, in April 2010. It gave law-enforcement officials the leeway to arrest people during a stop if they had reasonable suspicion they were in the country illegally.

In her gubernatorial election the following November, Brewer walked away with an 18-percentage point victory over the state’s Democratic attorney general, who--in polling by Arizona State University/PBS--had a 19-point lead over the incumbent governor just months before the passage of the law.

Other Republican candidates for governor followed Brewer’s lead.

In more than a dozen states, Republicans went on to win the governorship after actively campaigning for their state to pass Arizona-style laws or defended Brewer’s actions -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Govs. Nathan Deal (GA), Robert Bentley (AL), and Nikki Haley (SC) followed through with their campaign promises and signed their own similar measures in 2011. But, like Arizona, the courts struck down provisions in each of their laws.

Today, in the early stages of their reelection bids, the candidates, including the GOP’s top candidates seeking to replace Brewer, are not going out of their way to address immigration issues--from public statements to their respective campaign websites.

A California history lesson?

Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California says the shift away from tough-enforcement talk resembles California’s turn after then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, fought hard in 1994 on behalf of the state’s Proposition 187. The ballot initiative would ban undocumented immigrants from attending public schools and require state and local agencies to report individuals they suspected were in the country illegally.

“[Wilson] seemed to be struggling in his first term as governor. The downturn in the economy hit California particularly hard, making it easier to create a climate to scapegoat other groups,” McGhee said, referring to the undocumented immigrant population.

Amid the frenzy, California voters approved the measure--though a federal judge would eventually strike it down.

Just four years later in 1998, Californians went back to the polls but without the polarization of the immigration debate.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis beat his Republican opponent, the state’s attorney general who supported Prop 187, by 20 percent. An LA Times exit poll from that election showed that voters ranked immigration as the eighth most-important issue for choosing the governor, losing its appeal as a major campaign concern to voters.

“It wasn’t as much of an issue in 1998,” McGhee says. “And it’s never been as much of an issue ever since. In the short-term, the strategy may have helped win Pete Wilson the [1994] election, but in the long-term, it affected the voting share of the Latino population.”

The Waning 2010 Debate

Arizonans initiated the 2010 anti-immigrant fervor that swept through the country.

One month before Brewer signed SB1070, public figures linked illegal immigrants or drug smugglers to the murder of southern Arizona rancher Robert Krentz. The murder hyped up public support for the pending state bill.

U.S. Sen. John McCain--once the champion of a 2007 comprehensive bill--repositioned to the right when a Tea Party candidate contested him in his primary race. He appeared in a commercial saying, “Complete the danged fence,” and said that border security must be addressed before pathways to citizenship are offered.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu rose to national prominence for his tough-on-immigration mantra, and longtime Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio continued his highly-publicized “crime-suppression sweeps,” targeting neighborhoods with high saturations of Hispanics and making arrests for minor infractions such as broken car tail lights.

Brewer claimed there were beheadings in the desert. McCain often cited Phoenix as the “No. 2 kidnapping capital of the world” behind Mexico City.

But these claims later proved unsubstantiated, and the movement’s stars fell from the national limelight.

Authorities never made an arrest in the murder of Krentz; the law’s author Russell Pearce was recalled from office; a federal judge ruled that Arpaio’s office racially profiled; Babeu quit his run for Congress after he was outed and accused of threatening to deport his Mexican ex-boyfriend; coroner’s offices in southern Arizona could not identify a single beheading; and news organizations found that Phoenix police officials inaccurately labeled hundreds of incidents as kidnappings.

As a result, much of the conservative-led fervor consequentially collapsed in the following years.

This November, Arizona, which saw a six-percent increase in its Latino-voting share from 2004 to 2012, will head back to the polls, likely choosing between Democrat Fred DuVal and one of several Republicans.

The white vote in Arizona is not immovable either. In 2010 exit polling, white voters, who made up 80 percent of the electorate, went to Brewer 61 percent versus 37 percent for the Democrat. In the state’s 2006 race, incumbent Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) took 61 percent of the white vote to the Republican candidate’s 36 percent.

Florida’s changing tide?

Bob Jackson, an American politics professor at Florida State University, says there’s a possible opening for Democrats in Florida to seize on the potential decline in enthusiasm among conservatives and an increase in Latino-voter participation.

“[Immigration enforcement] was part of tapping into Tea Party folks and the extreme side of the [Republican Party],” Jackson said. “The Tea Party base is going to have to really struggle to maintain that base and enthusiasm. I think [2010] was a unique nexus at that time. Republicans don’t have an alternative [primary candidate this year] and could stay home and not vote.”

In Florida--perhaps the most-potentially attainable 2014 pickup for Democrats--Gov. Rick Scott advocated for an Arizona-style measure (2010 Campaign Ad).

He is expected to face off with former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democrat, this November. Scott won his 2010 campaign by one percentage point and took the Latino vote by two percentage points. The Pew Hispanic Center attributed his Latino-vote advantage to the state’s Republican-leaning Cuban-American population.

The 2012 presidential contest in Florida provided a contrast to the 2010 gubernatorial election, however. In 2012, Cuban-Americans veered from their traditional voting trend to support the reelection of President Obama, favoring him 49 percent to 47 percent. And overall, Florida’s Latino vote in 2012 jumped to the Democrat’s side by a margin of 60 percent to 39 percent. The share of Latinos as part of the voting population in Florida also elevated in 2012 (17 percent) from 2008 (14 percent).

“Crist will be able to present himself as more of a compassionate, big-tent, inclusive candidate,” Jackson said. “[Crist] does have a little bit of ammunition and could force Scott to defend or backtrack from [the tough-enforcement] position. It’ll be important to segments of the Latino community.”

Democrats’ chances of winning in places like South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama are smaller, but like Arizona and Florida, the Republican incumbents have yet to take tough-enforcement stances like they did four years ago. Latino voters make up less than four percent of voters in those states, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, but are continuing to grow.

GOP’s Immigration Path Ahead

State lawmakers said in 2010 that much of their call to action at the state level was because of the federal government’s inaction.

“We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act,” Brewer said at the time. “But decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation.”

Last summer, the U.S. Senate took action. Led by the bipartisan Gang of Eight, it passed a comprehensive measure that addressed border security and would open a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants in the country.

House Speaker John Boehner never brought the bill to the floor. Yet, this week, Boehner unveiled a set of immigration principles at the House GOP retreat in Maryland that stops short of a path for citizenship, but does include a path to residency, something Democrats and President Obama see as a hopeful sign.

After the 2012 election, in which President Obama won a whopping 71 percent of the Latino vote, the Republican National Committee released a self-review, the Growth and Opportunity Project, following the 2012 election that sought to help the party win future elections and expand its reach to Hispanics and other demographic groups.

In part, it read: “If Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies. In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our Party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.”

Not only would movement on an immigration measure likely affect the country’s congressional elections, it could also bring the issue back--for better or for worse--to the feet of the very gubernatorial candidates the issue helped propel in 2010.

The path ahead on immigration is unclear and is splitting Republicans. Immigration nearly derailed McCain’s presidential candidacy in 2008, and there is no legislation yet coming from the House. Conservative groups have again protested with some deriding what Boehner has proposed as “amnesty.” The question is – how much has the landscape shifted since 2010 or will conservative objections again win the day?