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Courting immigration

With U.S. Supreme Court taking on SB1070, illegal border crossers are back in campaign spotlight

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear the lawsuit against SB1070 couldn’t have been timed better to put illegal immigration front and center for the 2012 campaign season.

The high court is expected to hear arguments over SB1070, Arizona’s landmark illegal immigration law, in April and will likely issue an opinion in June. Arizona’s passage of the law in 2010, and the subsequent lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, became a hot-button issue in campaigns across the country.

SB1070 and the areas surrounding it — illegal immigration, border security, comprehensive immigration reform and states’ rights — could once again become a major campaign issue, not only for President Barack Obama’s re-election battle but in congressional, Senate and gubernatorial races across the country as well.

The dismal economy and high unemployment will be the overwhelming focus of the election cycle, but many observers say the Supreme Court battle over SB1070 will put a spotlight back on illegal immigration.

“From April until the time the ruling comes out, it will be a hot issue,” said Matt Williams, a Virginia-based Republican strategist.

The issue could be especially problematic for Obama, whose administration has led the charge against SB1070. Tim Mooney, an Arizona-based GOP consultant, said a pro-SB1070 ruling would put Obama on the defensive. He predicted that illegal immigration would be a “major issue” in the 2012 elections.

“If the Obama administration is repudiated in the courts, it will show perhaps that they’re not serious about enforcing immigration laws,” Mooney said. “There’s no way President Obama is going to win a majority of white male voters. The question is, because of issues like immigration, will he lose that audience by such a large margin?”

Illegal immigration has already been a contentious issue in the Republican presidential primary, where some contenders have hammered Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for moderate positions on the issue.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said the debate will play a major role in the 2012 elections.

“I think that Senate Bill 1070 and the issues on the border are a very big concern to the people of America. As we have seen … all the debates going on within the Republican primary that it has been a question that has elicited numerous questions and numerous answers,” Brewer told reporters on Dec. 12, the day the Supreme Court announced it would take the case. “So I think it’s very, very important. I think it’s a flashpoint in this election.”

A recent poll by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy may be a sign of things to come on the campaign trail. When respondents were asked what they thought was the biggest problem facing Arizona, 24 percent said it was illegal immigration, compared to 22 percent who said it was the economy.

The debate over illegal immigration and SB1070 will likely trickle down to other races as well, both inside and outside of Arizona. And Republicans who don’t take the hard line on the issue may pay for it in the primaries.

Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Wil Cardon used the court’s decision to hammer his primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, with a soft-on-illegal-immigration message. Flake was one of the few Arizona Republicans to speak out against the law last year.

But the issue likely won’t have the same cachet it had in 2010, when Democrats, and some Republicans, faced a barrage of criticism for opposing the controversial-but-popular law.

Mooney said GOP candidates will have tack toward the center in the general election because Hispanic voters turn out in greater numbers in presidential years.

Republicans will have to find a way to balance support for the rule of law and secure borders with a message that won’t antagonize a bloc of voters whose support they’ll need, especially in swing states with large Hispanic populations such as Colorado, Florida and New Mexico, Mooney said.

Williams said Gingrich has a “more general election-friendly position on illegal immigration.”

By the same token, Mooney said, the issue won’t be as toxic for Democrats.

“You’ve got a different kind of turnout model than in 2010. You’ll have more Hispanics, more Democratic voters in a presidential contest than in an off-year election,” Mooney said. “You’ve got to make sure you don’t leave yourself so far out you can’t get back to win independent voters.”

Williams has seen firsthand how damaging the issue can be to a Republican candidate who is viewed as weak on the issue. Williams served as a consultant on the 2010 campaign of Bill McCollum, who lost the Republican primary in Florida’s gubernatorial race after opponent Rick Scott lambasted him for opposing SB1070.

But Williams said Republican candidates should be cautious about taking positions on SB1070 and illegal immigration in the primary that they’ll regret in November.

“Certainly the Hispanic population is already a large and growing voting bloc in this nation and it’s something that the Republicans cannot afford to alienate and lose en masse,” he said.

But while SB1070 may put a spotlight back on illegal immigration, most observers say it will pale in comparison to the economy and unemployment as a campaign issue.

Brian Murray, a Republican consultant with the Phoenix-based Summit Consulting Group, said immigration could be big in the primaries, at least in states like Arizona that have late primaries. But in most races, the economy will trump everything else, he said.

“Immigration will remain a secondary issue unless there’s a big rebound in the economy,” Murray said. “Every poll I’ve seen has immigration as an important issue, but it just pales in comparison to the economy.”

Arizona consultant Chris Baker said Republican candidates will use illegal immigration and SB1070 as a wedge issue as needed — and GOP nominees will use it against Obama if polling shows it will be effective — but predicted that the issue would be “on the periphery.”

“Neither party really wants this to be a major theme of the campaign,” Baker said. “There’s a reason why this issue has basically been dead on arrival in this Congress. You haven’t seen any immigration legislation of any significance from either party. And that’s because it’s tricky.”

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