What the Primaries Will Tell Us About the Politics of Immigration

It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly the issue of immigration impacted a range of primary races on Tuesday. In some cases, exploiting our broken immigration system may have helped candidates win elections—as in the caseof Governor Jan Brewer. In other cases, talking tough about immigration may have costpoliticians their race—like Florida’s Attorney General Bill McCollum, who turned off Latino Republican voters with his pledge to bring SB1070 style legislation to the Sunshine State. Senator John McCain and Meg Whitman beat out their more extreme anti-immigrant opponents in tight primary races, but they definitely weren’t singing the praises of immigration either. However, it’s hard to predict what will happen in November’s general election based on the primary results. Many Republicans like Sen. John McCain turned hard-right in order to get their party’s nomination, yet that will likely subside in the next several months as candidates gear up for the general election.


The consensus from previous general elections is that anti-immigrant messages don’t resonate with general election voters. For example, in 2008, 19 pro-reform candidates beat anti-immigrant hardliners in 21 House and Senate races.

In 2008, America’s Voice found:

…that Americans in the so-called “battleground” districts and states are tired of slogans and polarization that do nothing to solve our nation’s problems, and are rejecting candidates who espouse them. Voters in overwhelming numbers support candidates that call for a smart, fair, and practical approach to immigration reform, one that will bring the system under control by registering undocumented workers so they can get on the tax rolls and a path to citizenship; ensuring stronger enforcement against employers who exploit workers; and allowing a limited number of immigrants whose work is needed long-term to come to the U.S. legally rather than illegally.

On the leadership level, RNC Chairman Michael Steele argues that Republican attitudes on immigration are a mixed bag and calls for cooler heads to prevail. CBS reportsa discussion Steele recently had on Spanish language network Univision where he said that Arizona’s SB1070 didn’t “reflect the beliefs of all Republicans.”

After coming out of this primary, Republican strategists and politicians may still not know whether the strategy of exploiting our broken immigration system is good politics, even if it wins elections. Clearly, many in the Republican Party are uncomfortable with how far their politicians have strayed to the right. And the elections of 2008 can provide a cautionary tale regarding the mindset of the electorate in a general election. Instead of using immigration as a political football, politicians on both sides should turn to good policy rather than politics to address our toughest problems, including immigration.

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