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Immigration, primarily

September 14, 2006

REPUBLICAN LAWMAKERS' internecine battles over immigration policy have already prevented them from acting on one of President Bush's top second-term priorities: comprehensive immigration reform. Now the GOP border split is threatening to cost Republicans at least one seat in the House of Representatives.

On Tuesday, Republican primary voters in Arizona's 8th Congressional District chose former state legislator and pro golfer Randy Graf -- who wants to militarize the southern border and who received $40,000 from the vigilante Minuteman Project -- over four opponents, most of whom took a more sensible approach on immigration.

Graf may be further to the right than the national GOP, but on issues such as taxes, same-sex marriage and abortion, he's right in line with the Bush administration. Nevertheless, the National Republican Congressional Committee was so worried about his ability to win this marginally Republican district in November that it threw more than $250,000 worth of advertising behind one of Graf's primary opponents, Steve Huffman.

The money and national support may have helped Huffman, but not enough. He wound up with 37% of the vote to Graf's 43%; the remaining 20% was divided among the other three candidates. Democrats, meanwhile, threw their support behind former Republican Gabrielle Giffords, who served five years in the state Legislature as a Democrat. Early polls show Giffords leading Graf in the race to succeed retiring Republican Jim Kolbe, who handily defeated Graf in the GOP primary two years ago.

Like Southern Californians, Arizonans experience firsthand the effects of illegal immigration, both bad and good. The labor supply and entrepreneurial energy have become vital to some industries even as schools, hospitals and other public institutions have strained to meet the burdens imposed. These experiences have divided voters and elected representatives. Three Arizona Republicans, including Kolbe, are leading sponsors of comprehensive reform bills that would create a guest-worker program as well as increase border security; four others are members of Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo's Immigration Reform Caucus, which seeks to seal the borders, deny citizenship to American-born children of illegal immigrant parents and slow legal immigration to a trickle.

Though he won, Graf drew fewer votes this year than he did in 2004 against Kolbe. Meanwhile, in the GOP primary for Arizona governor, an immigration restrictionist candidate, Don Goldwater (Barry's nephew), was outpolled, 49% to 41%, by Len Munsil, who took a less aggressive stance on illegal immigrants. So it's hard to argue that either side of the debate is gathering steam. The intriguing question remains whether the tough talk that wins primaries in September will do as well in general elections this November.

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