Immigration Hard-Liners and John McCain: Strange Bedfellows or Forever Star-Crossed?

Jim Gilchrist, head of the anti-immigration militia group the Minutemen, predicted in February, "If [John] McCain wins the nomination, most Americans will move to Australia." Indeed, the anti-immigration movement as a whole is unanimous in its disdain for the Republican presidential nominee, who as a senator has sponsored legislation -- with the right's liberal bogeyman Sen. Ted Kennedy, no less -- offering undocumented immigrants a "path to citizenship."

McCain, however, locked up the nomination a few months ago, and Sydney has not yet been invaded by a horde of disgruntled restrictionists. This leaves the anti-immigration movement facing a difficult choice in the upcoming presidential election: do they vote Republican and hope to influence a McCain presidency from inside the GOP tent? Or do they walk away and punish their party for abandoning one of its core constituencies?

In part, the anti-immigration movement's disarray is a function of McCain's unexpected path to the nomination, which left them without much time to counter-strategize. Back in the summer of 2007, McCain's campaign was crumbling because it lacked both money and supporters. One of McCain's biggest problems was immigration. His past positions on the issue infuriated the Republican base and unsettled primary voters. Americans for Better Immigration, a lobby group calling for reduced immigration, ranked McCain as having the worst policy on immigration of all the major candidates (from both parties). He was famously booed by at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February of 2008 when he mentioned immigration in a speech.

Last autumn, some even thought his stance on immigration might prevent him from winning his home state of Arizona in the general election, given that its politics are influenced to some of the most vociferous immigration hardliners in the country. "It looks to me like Arizona will be in play," Randy Pullen, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, told a reporter from the London Times. "The immigration issue is clearly hurting him with the base of the party." Dan Schnur, McCain's communications director during his 2000 presidential campaign, speculated to the Times reporter that the issue of immigration might cause McCain to drop out.

For their part, immigration hardliners disappointed with George W. Bush were excited at the possibility of nominating a Republican who took a tough stance on immigration. "Fred Thompson explicitly promoted attrition through enforcement and, along with Huckabee, actually proposed significant reductions in legal immigration, marking the first time in generations that such has happened in a presidential campaign," gushed Mark Kirkorian, executive director of the anti-immigration think-tank the Center for Immigration Studies.

At a Republican debate in November, the candidates with the exception of McCain competed to be the most hostile to immigrants, so much so that notoriously anti-immigrant Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo smiled that the candidates were trying to "out-Tancredo Tancredo." But in the end, it was the un-Tancredo who triumphed. Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani and Thompson all fell by the wayside in the Republican primaries, leaving McCain the presumptive nominee. "I just don't understand it," a disappointed Gilchrist says.

Now that McCain is the presumptive nominee, some anti-immigration activists are threatening to withhold their votes from the Republican Party in November. Glenn Spencer, founder of the American Border Patrol, a group that uses radio-controlled aircraft and ground-sensing equipment to track people coming over the border, says he may support the Democratic nominee. "We basically have a Democrat in the White House now, so it wouldn't be any different."

Gilchrist also says he couldn't support McCain. "A vote for McCain wouldn't be any better than a vote for Obama or Clinton." Likewise, in an op-ed on the Arizona Senator he titled "Amnesty John," Krikorian predicted that McCain's immigration position will cost him the November election. "Many conservative, pro-sovereignty voters will simply stay home."

But most Republican observers say the hardliners' threats to abstain from voting Republican are bluffs. "It's the same as with the religious right -- every election, they say you're not going to vote Republican unless their demands are met," says Ryan Sager, author of The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. "And every year, they wind up voting Republican." Republican pollster Glenn Bolger agrees, "I cannot envision a scenario where these people actually bolt from the party, they never would."

Even Republican lawmakers who opposed McCain in the primary are encouraging voters to line up behind him. "It's either going to be President McCain, President Obama or President Clinton," said Rep. David Davis, who has co-sponsored numerous pieces of restrictive immigration legislation. "I think McCain looks better every day."

John J. Duncan, Jr., a Republican Congressman from Knoxville, said that while there may not be the fervor for McCain's candidacy that there has been for other Republicans in the past, "even people that aren't particularly enthusiastic about Sen. McCain are certainly not in favor of either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama."

Moreover, McCain is trying to make amends. On April 3, he adopted the standard tough-on-immigration tropes on the Fox News program "On the Record." "I understand the message," he said, repeating a line he has been using for months. "[Republican voters] want the border secured first. And we'll work together with the governors in the states, the border states, to secure the borders and have the border state governors certify the borders are secure." McCain was at pains to say it was not a flip-flop: "I say it is a lesson learned about what the American people's priorities are. And their priority is to secure the borders." But accusations of double-talking are bound to emerge, as McCain did an about-face once again in June, telling Hispanic leaders he would push comprehensive immigration reform through Congress if elected. "He's one John McCain in front of white Republicans. And he's a different John McCain in front of Hispanics," complained Rosanna Pulido, a Hispanic and conservative Republican who attended the meeting.

In even partly jettisoning his comparatively pro-immigration leanings, however, McCain is ignoring the larger demographic question. 61 percent of likely Hispanic voters identify themselves as Democrats, while only 20 percent are Republicans, according to the Public Policy Institute in California. As the fastest-growing minority in the country, Hispanics are increasingly becoming a voting bloc to be reckoned with. Strategists like Karl Rove know that the GOP has to court Latinos for the future to stay competitive, and has warned party operators not to alienate the 46 million-strong community. Gilchrist might not want to stop looking at Australian real estate quite yet.

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