- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Ever since 1994, when California voters enacted Proposition 187 (a bill barring illegal immigrants from receiving many public services), leading Republicans around the country have shied away from saying anything critical about illegal immigration, viewing it as a political kiss of death. But, this month’s California recall election — in which Republican candidates Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock denounced ousted Gov. Gray Davis’s signing of legislation granting driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and garnered the support of more than 60 percent of the electorate — gives perhaps the strongest indication yet that Republican timidity on this issue is not merely bad public policy: It’s also bad politics.

In 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson, an outspoken supporter of Proposition 187, was swept to re-election in a landslide. In 1998, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren, who avoided the illegal immigration issue, got just 38 percent of the vote against Mr. Davis. Last year, Republican nominee Bill Simon (who also ignored the issue) got just 42 percent in losing to Mr. Davis.

Then, 11 months later, Messrs. Schwarzenegger and McClintock — open supporters of Proposition 187 and banning licenses for illegals — won 62 percent of the vote between them. A CNN exit poll found that 70 percent of voters opposed the driver’s license measure, while just 24 percent supported it.

Nor did Mr. Davis’ support for the bill do much to energize its supporters to go to the polls to keep him in office; if anything, it probably put another nail in his political coffin. According to another poll, 30 percent of the voters said that Mr. Davis’ support for the driver’s license bill made them more likely to support his recall, while only 8 percent said it made them less likely to do so. As Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), opined in a superb analysis of Republican candidates’ electoral performance in California for National Review Online: “Does anyone notice a pattern here?”

The California election also raises serious questions about another long-held belief of those who don’t want Republicans to seriously challenge illegal immigration: that it will cripple their ability to win Hispanic votes. Exit polls show that Messrs. Schwarzenegger and McClintock combined to win 39 percent of the Hispanic vote. In an interview with The Washington Times yesterday, Steven Camarota, director of research for CIS, said that Republican candidates statewide usually get around 25-30 percent of the Hispanic vote. The Schwarzennegger-McClintock performance suggests that “you can take an anti-illegal immigration position and still do well among Hispanics,” Mr. Camarota added.

But a number of caveats are in order. Voters had plenty of other grievances against Mr. Davis. And, not all of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s positions on immigration are to our liking. For example, he supports lower-in-state tuition for illegals.Allofthatsaid,thekey immigration-related issues in the recall election were driver’s licenses and Proposition 187, and the candidates who took responsible positions — Messrs. Schwarzenegger and McClintock — got 62 percent of the vote. The California results suggest that it’s time to reassess the premise that immigration is the third rail of politics for Republican politicians.

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