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Brewer may use immigration in move to the right

Gov. Jan Brewer

Gov. Jan Brewer

At a time when Gov. Jan Brewer needs all the Republican support she can muster, some see her recent statements about illegal immigration as a way to court the conservative base.

But what role the contentious issue will play in the 2010 Republican primary is far from certain.

During a late November press conference, Brewer castigated the League of Arizona Cities and Towns for a lawsuit it filed to reverse a law passed by the Legislature that, among other things, would require municipalities to take new steps to ensure that illegal immigrants don’t receive government benefits. The new law also allows Arizona residents to file lawsuits against cities if they believe the requirement isn’t being met.

Brewer’s statements could open a new front in a GOP primary war that has thus far focused almost exclusively on her call for a temporary sales tax increase. Whether she, or any of her Republican challengers, will be able to capitalize on the issue could depend on a number of factors.

Much as abortion drove many Republican voters to the polls in the 1990s and environmental issues drive a segment of the Democratic electorate, illegal immigration is an issue that defines candidates more than anything else for many conservative voters, said Shane Wikfors.

“She’s obviously reading the polls correctly and seeing that immigration is still a top issue for Republican voters, and I think she’s trying to ingrain that into her message,” the Republican political consultant said.

Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said the governor put a high priority on illegal immigration and border issues shortly after taking office. In a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates she requested that an addition 250 National Guard troops be placed on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Senseman said one of her first actions as governor was to contact key state agency heads to emphasize that existing the importance of ensuring that illegal immigrants don’t receive government benefits and that state contractors use the E-Verify system.

Senseman said Brewer has been in discussions with legislators about potential legislation that could be introduced in coming weeks.

“We’ll certainly continue to discuss it with him and see what the Legislature might have an appetite for successfully passing,” Senseman said.

But unless Brewer can stake out a significantly more conservative position than her rivals on the issue, it probably won’t be enough to make many primary voters forget about the tax plan that drove so many candidates to seek the Republican nomination in the first place.

Republican consultant Constantin Querard said he expects all of the Republican primary candidates to take tough stances on illegal immigration. The only way one will really stand out more than the others, he said, would be if one candidate is viewed as soft on the issue.

That likely would have a major impact on the primary, Querard said, because the Republican field doesn’t disagree on much, except Brewer’s sales tax proposal, and only Brewer herself stands out on that issue. The presumed field – former Arizona GOP Chairman John Munger, Paradise Valley Mayor Vernon Parker and possibly state Treasurer Dean Martin – is united in its opposition to a sales tax increase. But if one is notably softer than the others on illegal immigration, Querard said, the other candidates will race to see who can hit the lone standout the hardest.

“With the exception of talking about sales tax or no sales tax, have you been able to discern any difference between these folks on anything? They can make the case that I’m better because of my background – Munger will claim businessman, Parker will claim compelling personal story, Brewer will claim she’s been the one making the tough decisions, Martin will claim ‘I know I numbers and budgets and I’ve been shouting the warning since before anybody,’” Querard said. “But those aren’t very powerful motivators.”

State Sen. Russell Pearce disagrees. Pearce, a Mesa Republican with a reputation as one of Arizona’s foremost hawks on illegal immigration, said primary voters will take note of who supports strict enforcement efforts inside the state, as opposed to who simply supports tougher border security. Border security is politically popular, even with many Democrats, Pearce said, but is a way to sound tough on the issue without advocating tougher enforcement against illegal immigrants already living in the U.S.

“I think you’ll hear all of them talk tough about the border, but very few of them will talk about interior enforcement,” said Pearce, who noted that the Arizona and Maricopa County Republicans voted to include strong anti-illegal immigration resolutions in their platforms this year. “It’s become a theme song for those who really have no intention of enforcing the law.”

Goddard, the Democratic attorney general, has taken a strong public stance on border issues, and has spoken frequently about the need to curtail the cartels that smuggle drugs and illegal immigrants into the U.S. while smuggling illegal guns and money back into Mexico. At a Dec. 1 meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General, Goddard touted his office’s recent collaborations with law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border to stop the southbound flow of American guns and drug profits.

Wikfors said he expects at least one candidate, and possibly all of them, to tie illegal immigration to the economic issues that have dominated Arizona’s political landscape recently. The candidate who can best tie illegal immigration to jobs and the state’s double-digit unemployment rate might have some success in attracting the primary voters who are most interested in illegal immigration issues.

Another way the issue could play a role in the primary is if one candidate can garner the endorsement of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an icon for anti-illegal immigration activists. Arpaio frequently says he hasn’t ruled out a gubernatorial run of his own – he is widely expected to stay out of the race, though a recent Rasmussen poll tagged him as the strongest potential candidate against Goddard – and hasn’t endorsed a candidate for the primary.

But if one of the candidates can get the sheriff’s endorsement, the votes of many Republican primary voters could follow.

“I think his is a very good endorsement to have. It’s probably one of the better Republican endorsements you can have in Arizona,” Querard said.

One thing is clear – voters largely approve of tough stands on illegal immigration, and their support of Arpaio, who was elected in 2008 to a fifth term, is indicative of that, said pollster Bruce Merrill. Merrill, whose Cronkite/Eight poll has consistently shown strong support for the popular but controversial sheriff, said a strong position on illegal immigration could help Brewer with conservative voters who are upset with her tax hike proposal. But the economy and the state’s ongoing budget crisis likely will be the dominant issue.

“By the time this election rolls around, you may not have Highway Patrol officers or probation officers or whatever. And there is only going to be one issue, in my opinion, and that’s jobs and the economy,” Merrill said.

Which candidate will take the most conservative position on illegal immigration remains to be seen. Munger said he would create a Department of Public Safety task force to stamp out the violent drug cartels and human traffickers in the state and would consider filing a joint lawsuit with other states against the federal government to recoup the cost of securing the border. Parker said the enforcement of immigration law is critical, especially considering the impact illegal immigration has on the state’s budget. Martin, who cannot declare his candidacy until January due to Arizona’s resign-to-run law, has not said whether he will seek the governorship or run for re-election as treasurer.

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