Gov. Jan Brewer’s newfound celebrity status is stirring as much controversy nationwide as it is in Arizona, with Republicans lauding her as a symbol of resistance to an overreaching federal government and Democrats presenting her as an example of the hysteria and hyperbole surrounding the illegal immigration debate.
In the meantime, a governor who suffered from startlingly low name identification in her own state when she took office has now become a familiar face to people across the country. As long as Arizona’s controversial new illegal immigration law holds the headlines, Brewer is likely to keep her spot on center stage.
Speaking recently to the Republican social group, Politics on the Rocks, Brewer acknowledged that when she took office in January 2009, not many people knew much about her, despite 26 years in elected office.
“Well, now we have all the network people calling my office, calling Arizona – Greta, Bill O’Reilly, Anderson Cooper, Campbell Brown, Jay Leno,” she said. “Arizona is really in demand.”
Brewer has become a regular fixture on cable news shows, especially on the conservative FOX News network. The governor has appeared seven times on FOX host Greta Van Susteren’s show, with six of those appearances coming after she signed S1070 on April 23.
Brewer’s longtime political adviser Chuck Coughlin claims Brewer has more Facebook friends than any governor except California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Polls have shown public support for S1070 ranging from just over 50 percent to a staggering 71 percent. But pollster Bruce Merrill said Brewer’s celebrity following, and the resulting popularity, is due to more than just the controversial, popular law she signed. People like the image she projects as a governor protecting a state under siege, an image that was reinforced when she went to the White House in June to discuss border security issues with President Barack Obama.
“I think what happened is when she went off to Washington, took on the president and really defended Arizona as there’s been criticism of the state,” said Merrill, who runs the Cronkite/Eight Poll. “I think that’s helped her as much as being supportive of 1070.”
The Republican Party and countless tea party groups espouse the message that the federal government is overstepping its authority under Obama and has failed miserably in securing the border and cracking down on illegal immigration.
Coughlin said Brewer has come to symbolize the frustration over border security to people across the country, not just in Arizona.
“She’s become the tip of the spear on the issue of border security and the failure of the Obama administration to execute on policies which protect this state and the citizens of the country,” he said.
Brewer has become perhaps the most recognizable spokeswoman for states’ rights and tough immigration policies, and Republican candidates in other states have started seeking her endorsement. She recently endorsed gubernatorial candidates Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Karen Handel of Georgia in their GOP primaries.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican lobbyist for the Washington, D.C.-based Bonjean Company, said Brewer is becoming a popular national figure for people who are angry about those issues, though most people don’t know anything else about her.
“Most Americans know that she is a governor who’s standing up for her state and trying to enforce the law,” Bonjean said. “Outside of that, she’s relatively unknown.”
Brewer is fast becoming a national symbol for Democrats as well, but in a far more negative way. Her opponents say she has spread falsehoods and fueled hysteria over illegal immigration.
Critics have latched onto dubious comments Brewer has made, such claims that most illegal immigrants are drug mules or that drug cartels have decapitated victims in Arizona, leaving headless bodies in the state’s sprawling desert.
In a July 11 column, ~Washington Post~ writer Dana Milbank mocked Brewer for her claims about headless bodies, and accused Arizona politicians of using such claims as the basis for S1070.
“There’s not a follicle of evidence to support Brewer’s claim,” Milbank wrote. “Brewer’s mindlessness about headlessness is just one of the immigration falsehoods being spread by Arizona politicians.”
Arizona Democratic Party spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said Brewer is learning the downside of being a political celebrity.
“She’s gotten a lot of national attention for fact twisting and fear mongering,” Johnson said. “And that’s part of what happens when you try to create this national persona. You’re going to have a lot more scrutiny, and, frankly, we need a lot more scrutiny on her.”
Regardless of her critics’ barbs, Brewer’s rise as a political celebrity has gone hand-in-hand with her rise in the polls. Six months ago many observers doubted she would even win the Republican primary for governor, let alone the general election, and a Rasmussen Reports poll in March showed her in three-way tie with state Treasurer Dean Martin and businessman Buz Mills for the GOP nomination.
Three months after signing S1070, Martin and Mills dropped out of the race, leaving her with only token opposition in the primary. Mills, who spent $3.2 million on his campaign, said he couldn’t compete with the “Greta and Jan show every night on national television” and the millions of dollars in free airtime that came with it. Adding to his frustration, Mills said, was that much of the attention showered upon Brewer is undeserved because she did nothing more than sign someone else’s bill when it landed on her desk.
Supporters of Attorney General Terry Goddard, the Democrat who will face Brewer in November, are now wondering if he will suffer the same fate.
“Brewer already is very visible, not only in the state but nationwide,” said Fred Solop, the director of Northern Arizona University’s political science department. “(Goddard’s) familiarity ratings … are just not at the level Jan Brewer’s are at.”