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Home / Capitol Insiders / The risks of defiance: What will GOP senators’ ‘no’ votes on immigration bills cost them?

The risks of defiance: What will GOP senators’ ‘no’ votes on immigration bills cost them?

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Advocates of stricter state-level immigration laws hinted at dire political repercussions for the 12 Republicans who voted against some or all of five controversial immigration measures on March 17.

The votes prompted Sen. Ron Gould, a Republican from Lake Havasu City and an ardent supporter of the five bills, to issue a thinly veiled threat from the floor of the Senate.

“Apparently, what you (opponents) are saying here is that you are unwilling to attempt to remove an incentive for people to illegally immigrate to the United States. So, when your constituents come up and ask you that why don’t you do something about this, you can reflect back on this bill and how this bill failed,” he said.

“It would be kind of interesting to see how you are going to explain yourself to your constituents (with) the emails that will start coming in momentarily.

The warning certainly didn’t fall on deaf ears, but it also didn’t tell the Republican opponents of the bills anything they didn’t already know. They were well aware of the political minefield they were tiptoeing into when they refused to support the bills championed by Senate President Russell Pearce, an anti-illegal-immigration firebrand who has campaigned against fellow Republicans who do not support his agenda.

Besides the obvious ire they’ve drawn from the man who holds major sway over their legislation, their “no” votes could also embolden would-be GOP challengers in the 2012 primaries.

They understand that a very vocal segment of the Republican base wanted to see the immigration measures passed, and their “no” votes would be perceived as a thumb in the eye by some Republicans.

But they also said the political climate and the measures on the table are different from the ones they supported in the past, including for almost all of them, SB1070. The public’s focus today has shifted away from immigration to more pressing economic issues, such as finding employment and preventing foreclosures. The senators argued that their opposition to the latest batch of immigration measures merely reflected the public’s priorities.

Also, it wasn’t just one or two members of the majority that balked at the measures, but more than half of the 21-member Senate Republican caucus, including members of the leadership team. In short, rejecting the bills wasn’t a reaction by those in the fringes. Rather, it showed a serious disagreement within the caucus over the proposals, which Republican critics said were overbroad and flawed.

Trouble with uniting the GOP front on illegal immigration

At the core of this disagreement is the same conflict that has plagued the Republican Party in the past few years — how to best confront illegal immigration.

On one side are Republicans who generally support measures targeting illegal immigration. But they express concerns about the economic repercussions for continuing to push the envelope when no other state has even come close to adopting what Arizona has already enacted.

These legislators have argued for the state to step back from approving additional immigration measures until lawsuits challenging existing laws, including SB1070 and employer sanctions, are resolved.

In the words of Phoenix Republican John McComish — one of the senators who bucked Pearce — voters are experiencing “immigration fatigue.”

On the other side are legislators who believe Arizona should keep pushing to confront the problem where it can and how it can. In their minds, backing down makes no sense, since no one — particularly the federal government — is going to do it. They argue that voters elected a supermajority in the Legislature and expected them to pursue state-level actions against illegal immigration.

Then there are those in the middle, who are trying their best to satisfy the often conflicting messages they are getting from interest groups, fellow Republicans and constituents.

Effectively calculating political risk

In a border state that is the focal point in the war against illegal immigration, any position on an immigration bill carries political risks. That can be said of all controversial measures, but it’s particularly true for immigration.

Constantin Querard, a Republican political consultant, said illegal immigration tends to touch on all the other major issues voters care about — be it the number of students in Arizona classrooms or long lines at emergency rooms.

And that partly explains why those who opposed legislation that Pearce has championed “tend to lose” in elections, Querard said.

The politicians who voted against the five immigration bills this month are aware of those risks.

“Anytime you vote, there is somebody or bodies that are going to be against that vote,” said McComish, who is among a core group of Republicans who voted against all five measures. Anytime a legislator makes a choice on the floor, he or she has “alienated somebody,” he said.

While the measures are, for all intents and purposes, dead this session, it’s likely they will get introduced again next year — and in an election year, the dynamics change, as voters pay closer attention to how their representatives vote as Election Day draws near. The political pressure inevitably rises and the stakes become higher.

And that’s why, for the Republicans who voted “no,” it is crucial to reach out to disgruntled constituents early and often. They say the key, like everything else in politics, is to avoid being on the defensive.

Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, who also opposed all five bills, said he has been explaining his position to those who had contacted him, and many who did not agree with his position have at least appreciated being able to talk to him about it.

Of course, the explanation has to be logically sound, Crandall said.

“Like, for example, on the hospital bill, it costs hospitals a fortune and it didn’t save the state a dime,” he said. The measure in question would have required hospitals to verify the citizenship of patients being admitted for care, then contact law enforcement if they believed the person was not in the country legally.

Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, who voted against the birthright legislation, isn’t worried about political repercussions.

“Once people understand the rationale, they will be smart enough and I have faith in them having the intelligence to analyze it and make the right call,” Antenori said, adding his opposition was the right thing to do.

“If there’s a guy in southern Arizona that can run to the right of me, I defy you to find him,” Antenori said.

The Republican said he has a solid conservative record.

“If somebody wants to dredge up those two votes out of the thousands of votes I have done in my three years up here so far and somehow try to make that argument that I’m some kind of a squishy-RINO Republican, I say go ahead,” he added.

Plus, the political climate and economic situation are different today. Since Arizona’s economy has gone south, at the top of people’s minds are finding work and paying bills. Critics said their opposition to the immigration measures merely reflected the people’s priority — which is for legislators to do all they can to revive the economy.

“I thought that’s what we agreed to do as a body when we started this session. So I think either you mean what you say or you say what you mean,” Sen. John Nelson, R-Litchfield Park, said.

Crandall and other Republicans who opposed the measures told Arizona Capitol Times they have received numerous calls and emails since the March 17 vote, and an overwhelmingly majority thanked them for the position they took.

However, Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, the author of two bills aimed at challenging the automatic citizenship given to children of illegal immigrants, wondered how many of them actually came from Republican primary voters, which he said is the “only vote that matters.”

Gould’s remark might sound snobbish, but they are words to live by in a state where most legislative districts are decidedly stacked in favor of one party.

That’s why the winner of the primary election in the district’s dominant party almost always emerges as the victor in the general election. For most legislators, therefore, the real competition takes place in August, not November.

Stirring up the business community; disappointing Pearce

At the outset, here’s what Republican legislators risked for their “yes” or “no” vote on the immigration bills.

Those who supported the measures effectively snubbed the plea of the business community, which opposed the bills and mounted an organized campaign to defeat them, arguing that continuing along the same path gives the state an economic black eye it can ill-afford.

In addition, supporters also risked alienating constituents who have suffered from the financial downturn and expected legislators to focus on turning the economy around — not controversial immigration measures.

As a political force, the business community carries a big stick, and major groups like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry have not been shy about spending money to defeat candidates they don’t feel represent their interests.

Those who opposed the bills, meanwhile, courted the ire of Republican activists like Rob Haney, chairman of the Maricopa County Republican Party, who argued that the state’s woes, from crime to the festering fiscal crisis, can be largely traced to illegal immigration.

Haney said the reaction from the grassroots had been swift. They were “flabbergasted” that the legislators they helped put into office to stem the “invasion” chose not to.

“They do not realize the base of the party is, over and over again, asking that something be done — and instead of something being done, they slap you in the face and say, ‘We’re not going to do anything. In fact, we are going to listen to the chambers of commerce because they want cheap labor,’” Haney said.

Those who balked at the bills also disappointed Pearce, the state’s most famous anti-illegal-immigration force. Pearce’s status was raised nationally after SB1070 became law, and many legislative Republican candidates seek his endorsement on their campaigns because of his popularity with grassroots conservatives.

Lessons from the SB1070 vote

As the last election showed, the political peril is larger for those who say “no” to proposals advocating stricter state-level laws against illegal immigrants.

Indeed, many credited Gov. Jan Brewer’s support for SB1070 with turning around her floundering candidacy. Prior to that bill landing on her desk, Brewer was widely seen as the underdog in the race. Afterward, however, she was unbeatable, and both of her chief GOP rivals halted their campaigns.

Some have also pointed to Democrats’ opposition to SB1070 as a reason for their defeat in the general election.

Former Democratic legislator Manny Alvarez said he found himself in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation last year.

Alvarez represented District 25, an expansive area that includes much of the US-Mexico border. It’s also a swing district. Democrats hold a slight edge in voter registration, but Republicans form a sizable voting block.

Cognizant that he was representing constituents of all political stripes, Alvarez had mixed feelings about SB1070, which requires police officers to check the status of persons if they suspected they were in the country illegally.

Unfortunately, legislators can only vote for or against a bill. There’s no button for mixed views.

Alvarez likened it to walking on top of a fence.

“Either way I fall, it hurts me,” he said.

Ultimately, he voted no.

To what extent that vote contributed to his defeat in the general election remains a point of debate, but no one disagrees that it played a role.

Actually, the Democratic senators who lost to Republicans that year — Alvarez of Elfrida, Rebecca Rios of Apache Junction, and Amanda Aguirre of Yuma County — all voted against SB1070.

To be clear, many other Democrats won even though they voted against SB1070, and many argued that it was most likely the country’s anti-Washington sentiment, perhaps more than anything, that contributed to large Democratic defeats in 2010.

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