Immigrants’ List, a political action committee dedicated to promoting a generous immigration system in the U.S., is clear in its chief goal this election season: namely, beating Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican.
That’s the headline on many of its fundraising solicitations, which are part of an ongoing experiment by those on both sides of the immigration issue to see whether it is a hot enough political subject to sway congressional races.
Polling suggests the issue’s impact could be increasing, but it’s the folks on Mr. King’s side of the debate who appear to have the upper hand. A survey released Wednesday by the Polling Co. Inc. found strong support for encouraging illegal immigrants to go back to their home countries, and even for reducing overall levels of legal immigration, the expansion of which has long been a bipartisan priority shared by the business community.
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“The children-at-the-border-crisis has brought into sharp relief public opinion about immigration. Out of sight, out of mind is over,” Kellyanne Conway, the pollster, said in a memo outlining the key findings.
Immigrants’ List is one of a handful of PACs dedicated to hashing out the immigration issue on the electoral battleground in recent years.
Other PACs include Republicans for Immigration Reform, which has drawn donations from some Bush administration Cabinet secretaries, and the Immigration Reform Fund, launched by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, who uses the PAC to fund his efforts to push for a broad immigration reform bill to pass Congress.
Then on the other side of the issue is Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, or ALIPAC, run by William Gheen, a North Carolina man who has gained prominence for campaigns such as the one this year to send “gently used” underwear to President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner to protest government spending to house the surge of illegal immigrants this year.
“This will be the first election cycle in the 10 years I’ve been doing this that illegal immigration has been the definitive top issue of the cycle,” Mr. Gheen said. “So we may get a clearer view of what illegal immigration can do than in any other cycle.”
Analysts have debated immigration’s effects on past elections. The most recent was the 2012 presidential election, when both Democrats and the Republican National Committee concluded that a stern stance hurt GOP nominee Mitt Romney by pushing Hispanic voters into Mr. Obama’s corner.
But congressional elections have been tougher to calculate.
“I think it’s an issue. I think in some places people feel strongly about it. I think Hispanics overall feel very strongly about the issue,” said Ira Kurzban, a prominent immigration lawyer who is treasurer for Immigrants’ List. “I think it’s an issue Hispanics think about when they vote because it affects them directly, very often.”
He started his group with fellow immigration lawyers, who remain the biggest donors, and he said that brings a special perspective.
“We as immigration lawyers, who not only know about the law, but know about the effects because we see them with people in our offices every day, decided to look at this from a long-term perspective,” he said. “How do you get people elected who are going to look at these issues in a serious way and not just have a knee-jerk anti-immigrant reaction?”
There’s little doubt who his group sees as the chief “knee-jerk” reactor: In the past six years, the group has spent more than half of the money it’s dedicated to elections trying to unseat Mr. King.
The Iowa lawmaker has become a major figure within the Republican Party, helping lead a push to end Mr. Obama’s nondeportation policies and stiffen enforcement. He was a key player in forcing GOP leaders to add more teeth to their bill in July aimed at stemming the surge of children across the border.
Unseating Mr. King is a long shot, however. One prognosticator says it’s a “safe” GOP seat, while two others put it in the “likely Republican” category.
“King has traditionally been popular, but I think he’s really out of step with his district,” Mr. Kurzban said. “His negative numbers are really high, just like [former Rep. Eric] Cantor’s negative numbers were really high.”
Michael Stevens, Mr. King’s campaign manager, said they aren’t worried about Immigrants’ List, and he said the PAC is targeting Mr. King to make money for its consultants.
“Congressman King’s conservative record is a known target of the far left, so it should be no surprise whatsoever that liberal opportunists are seeking to raise funds by attracting attention to his campaign,” Mr. Stevens said.
“The impact that these liberal PACs have on campaigns is negligible, since their interests seem to end in the wallets of those who run them,” he said.
A look at the finance reports from Immigrants’ List suggests he’s correct.
Over the past three election cycles, the PAC has raised $413,975 and spent just $42,168 on contributions to candidates, or on independent expenditures to influence races — just slightly more than 10 percent of its total money.
The average PAC spends about 25 percent of its money on candidates and an additional 6 percent on independent expenditures, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — about three times as much as Immigrants’ List.
Immigrants’ List says it spends money on research, creating “good guys” and “bad guys” lists to guide voters, and on building Web pages targeting certain candidates, including Mr. King.
Overall, the PAC estimates that about one-third of its spending goes to help candidates in some way or another.
Immigrants’ List is still way ahead of ALIPAC, which from 2009 through June of this year spent only about 3 percent on elections out of the nearly $700,000 it raised.
The lack of direct spending on campaigns means it could be tough to tell whether immigration-related PACs on either side of the debate are worth the effort.
But Mr. Gheen, founder of ALIPAC, said they use it to finance their activism and get their message out. Playing a direct role in financing elections isn’t as critical to them. Instead, they maintain an email list of more than 50,000 activists, and claim hundreds of thousands of followers on their social media presence, whom they urge to give directly to campaigns.
“We’re small fish financially, but we’ve been doing this for 10 years,” he said. “Our people, our supporters, have supported us for 10 years because they’re happy with what we do.”
He said they’ve been focusing this year on automated phone calls in targeted races, and said they think their calls helped unseat Mr. Cantor, the House majority leader who resigned after losing a GOP primary in June.
They also tried to unseat Sen. Lamar Alexander in his GOP primary in Tennessee this month, but he said they were able to finance calls to only 221,000 homes, less than half of the number of people who voted.
Mr. Gheen said the groups on both sides have fought to a draw.
“Except for Cantor, it seems to be we have a bit of a stalemate, where the pro-amnesty people have kept most of their people intact, and the people against amnesty, we’ve been able to fight and protect them,” he said.