Monday, June 5, 2006

The nasty fight on Capitol Hill over the Senate’s immigration-reform plan is already shaping key races in this year’s congressional elections.

From districts along the Mexican border to deeply landlocked districts, immigration has become both a rallying cry for Republicans in some races and a wedge that splinters Republicans in other races. With polls showing nearly 90 percent of Americans viewing illegal immigration as a “serious” problem, the issue is sure to haunt this fall’s elections.

California Republican Brian Bilbray — aiming to fill the San Diego seat vacated by convicted felon Randy “Duke” Cunningham — is running on the platform of “Proven Tough on Illegal Immigration” and is favored to beat his Democratic opponent, who supports the Senate Republican immigration plan that would grant citizenship rights to some 10 million illegal aliens.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is one of the main authors of the Senate immigration bill, canceled a fundraiser last week for Mr. Bilbray after the candidate publicly attacked Mr. McCain’s plan because he said it granted “amnesty” to illegals.

Mr. Bilbray’s opponent, Francine Busby, trumpeted the cancellation, and it brought plenty of press attention. But, supporters note, getting jilted by Mr. McCain might not be so bad for a Republican running in a conservative district just 30 miles from the Mexican border.

But congressional campaigns much farther from the border are also turning on the issue of immigration, none more so than Rep. Chris Cannon’s effort to hold onto his Utah seat for a 6th term.

Mr. Cannon says he wants to secure the border and opposes amnesty. But the former business executive also favors a guest-worker program that would bring into the U.S. large numbers of foreign migrant workers.

That’s a view held by many Republicans, including President Bush. But even more than 700 miles from the border, opposition to the president’s plan has become the primary focus for the campaign of Republican challenger John D. Jacob, who beat Mr. Cannon at the GOP convention last month. The two face a primary later this month since neither garnered 60 percent of delegate votes at the convention.

Mr. Cannon has established a campaign task force to advise him on immigration, to which Mr. Jacob responded: “First, we almost certainly don’t need another task force to back burner this issue. The right and simple answer is to obey our laws.”

In Tennessee, former Republican Rep. Ed Bryant is also campaigning on the issue in his quest to succeed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Last week, he made a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border and held a telephone press conference with reporters while standing just yards from the border, describing the scene.

“The three biggest issues I’m hearing about is immigration three times,” Mr. Bryant, a former federal prosecutor, told reporters. “We have to do something yesterday on this.”

In Montana, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns is using the immigration issue to beat back two challengers and this week began airing commercials about his opposition to the Senate bill on television and radio. His opponents, the announcer intones, “didn’t say how they would have voted.”

Republicans also are seeking to ride the issue to upset victories over incumbents in Michigan and Nebraska.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, voted against final passage of the Senate bill, but Republicans hope to stick her with the deciding vote she cast on an amendment that would allow illegals to collect Social Security benefits. And Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, also voted against final passage on the bill, but Republicans plan to criticize him for his past work as a lobbyist on behalf of businesses that felt harassed by federal immigration crackdowns on the illegal aliens they were hiring.

But it’s the California House race that many consider to be the “canary in the coal mine” that determines whether Democrats pay a price for supporting citizenship rights for illegal aliens or Republicans pay a price for trying to be too tough — thus possibly alienating Hispanic voters.

The cancellation of last week’s McCain-Bilbray fundraiser followed a letter to Mr. McCain from Mrs. Busby, who supports Mr. McCain’s immigration stance.

“I hope you will take the opportunity to inform … Brian Bilbray about your tough and comprehensive reform proposal,” she wrote several days before the scheduled fundraiser. “During your visit, you may see some of the advertisements or mailers from Mr. Bilbray that attack me for supporting your proposal.”

A few days later, the event was scrubbed, though Mr. McCain said through a spokesman that he still supports Mr. Bilbray.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Busby found herself on the defensive after she was recorded at a meeting apparently telling an illegal alien he could vote in tomorrow’s primary.

At a Thursday meeting, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, a man in the audience told Mrs. Busby in Spanish: “I want to help, but I don’t have papers.”

After a translation, the Democrat replied: “Everybody can help, yeah, absolutely, you can all help. You don’t need papers for voting, you don’t need to be a registered voter to help.” Mr. Bilbray responded Friday that Mrs. Busby’s comment was not “exactly what you call the pinnacle of ethical campaign strategy.”

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