Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) staved off a primary challenge Tuesday night, defeating an opponent who attacked him for backing President Bush's guest worker program.
Cannon, a conservative who has been a longtime advocate of immigrants' rights, had 56% of the vote over John Jacob's, 44%, with 89% of the vote counted.
The contest highlighted the split in the GOP over illegal immigration.
Cannon was targeted by a political action committee founded by fellow Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) that dubbed the incumbent the "king of amnesty." A longtime target of anti-immigration groups, Cannon found himself so threatened this year that President Bush and his father urged voters to back the congressman.
Cannon framed his victory as a choice for a pragmatic solution on immigration reform.
"A lot of money got spent here by outside groups, by people who had a vested interest in not solving the immigration problem," Cannon said in an interview after Jacob conceded. "People here in Utah looked at it and said 'we want to solve the problem.' "
Earlier in the evening, Cannon told supporters gathered in downtown Provo, Utah that the outcome would have a national impact on the immigration battle. "The debate is going to take a different direction after tonight," he said.
The outcome is the latest in a string of failures by anti-immigration groups to unseat congressional Republicans who favor a guest worker program. Cannon had been targeted before, but the fight was never as intense as it was this year.
Early polls showed the race at a statistical dead heat, and challenger Jacob won a majority of delegates' votes at the state Republican convention. Cannon, who had championed unsuccessful bills in the House of Representatives to legalize undocumented agricultural workers and allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities, touted his toughness on illegal immigration.
But Jacob did himself no favors. Last week he blamed Satan for his business problems, and despite attacking Cannon on immigration, he readily confessed he did not know what to do to solve the problem. "I can't give you those details because I don't have them yet," he told the Salt Lake Tribune.
The primary embodied the battle inside the Republican party over illegal immigration. President Bush and the pro-business wing have advocated a guest worker program and a way for illegal immigrants to become legal U.S. residents. But many rank-and-file conservatives have pushed for a border fence and oppose allowing undocumented workersto remain.
Republican leaders in the House of Representatives this month said they did not expect to come to an agreement on illegal immigration with their Senate counterparts, who backed the president's approach. It was a rebuke to the president's top domestic priority.
The outcome may have been affected by the unique nature of Utah, a state with a growing Latino population that has historically been friendly to immigrants, legal and illegal alike. Many residents have participated in Mormon missions in Third World nations and are sympathetic to the plight of Latin Americans.
Cannon is virtually assured of reelection to the House in November because the district is overwhelmingly Republican.