Political Pushback for Soft-on-Immigration Republicans

By James R. Edwards, Jr. on January 12, 2010

There are new indications that supporting mass amnesty and liberal immigration levels may carry political costs. Two prominent Republican lawmakers who've pushed amnesty now face political heat for those actions. U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have become targets for their open-borders stances.

Arizona Sen. McCain faces challenges in his re-election bid, specifically over immigration policy differences. Judging by his state's strong support for Proposition 200 in 2004, McCain marches out of step with the vast majority of his constituents. Immigration-control Republicans are now mounting bids to unseat McCain in his Senate primary race.

South Carolina Sen. Graham has received censures from three big county Republican committees. The Charleston, Greenville, and Lexington County GOP organizations have voted formal measures aimed at Graham, rebuking him for his pro-amnesty activity, as well as his collaboration on other issues.

In The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform, University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel and I reported that, in general, the immigration issue hasn't had high salience as an electoral issue in most federal races over the past several decades. Immigration may sway an appreciable number of votes when the issue gains prominence in a specific campaign or rises in prominence, such as in California in 1994 with Proposition 187, but typically this issue has gotten overshadowed as the basis for voters' candidate decisions.

Also, immigration might not turn a lot of congressional races because most districts aren't competitive. They're gerrymandered into generally safe Republican or Democratic seats, so any single issue lacks sufficient potency to displace an incumbent officeholder. Because they aren't gerrymandered, statewide races such as for the U.S. Senate or for governor mean the most salient issues could cause an incumbent's loss.

When Washington pushed amnesty in 2006 and 2007, that effort pushed immigration front and center as an electoral issue. Still, other factors were at work and affected the dynamics of electoral politics in the next two election cycles. Thus, immigration wasn't as potent an electoral issue as it might otherwise have been.

But the immigration issue tended to be helpful to 2006 and 2008 candidates who supported border security, while less reliable candidates talked the border security talk (though not all have walked the walk once in office). Given the price McCain and Graham could pay for being off-track with most American (and, in particular, their own states') voters on immigration, more politicians may look to shore up their own immigration-control credentials this year.