McCain has fences to mend in home state
Some Republicans don’t like the senator’s moderate record on illegal immigration.
By Ralph Vartabedian and Nicholas Riccardi
PHOENIX — — Sen. John McCain’s run for the presidency is gaining momentum across the nation, but the campaign is meeting disapproval in one of the most unlikely places: his home turf in Arizona.
In a straw poll vote two weeks ago of 721 Republican leaders in Maricopa County, the major population center of the state, a majority ranked McCain as the least acceptable Republican candidate for president.
The reason, Republicans say, is his record on illegal immigration.
“We feel betrayed and let down by our senior senator,” said Russell Pearce, a Republican representative in the statehouse who has written a number of tough laws against illegal immigrants. “I will not support a candidate, I don’t care how many medals he has on his chest, when he won’t do the right thing for America.”
The anger grows out of McCain’s role since at least 2006 as the prime Republican leader of a comprehensive immigration legislation that would have given the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. a path toward citizenship.
Pearce and many other Republicans here call that path an amnesty that will encourage more illegal immigration and are passing state laws that are at odds with McCain’s view.
McCain, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, remains popular among Arizona voters and is expected win the primary here Tuesday. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior policy advisor to McCain’s campaign, was not aware of the Maricopa County straw poll but said it was not representative of McCain’s support among rank-and-file conservatives.
“We believe the senator can not only get the nomination, but all the polls show that he can win the presidency against any of the Democratic candidates,” Holtz-Eakin said.
Indeed, illegal immigration was a hot issue a year ago but has cooled considerably, and McCain has skillfully avoided the subject as much as possible. A search of about 250 news releases issued by McCain since January found few, if any, direct references to immigration.
But others are not so quick to count out potential voter sentiment on immigration. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who dropped out of the Republican presidential race, said McCain’s record on the issue would eventually damage his campaign.
“It is an incredibly dangerous position for him to be in,” Tancredo said. “McCain has yet to win a primary with a majority of the Republicans voting for him. What happens when it is just him and a Democrat? How many Republicans will not vote, or write in a name?”
McCain has backed off from the comprehensive immigration reform he wrote with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 2006, Holtz-Eakin said. Instead, McCain now advocates spending $3 billion to upgrade border security, in addition to billions of dollars already committed, to stop illegal immigration — before deciding how to deal with those already in the country.
“He doesn’t see a practical way to deport 12 million people,” Holtz-Eakin said. At a Republican debate when immigration came up, McCain said, “We are all God’s children.”
Randy Pullen, an anti-immigration activist who was elected chairman of Arizona’s Republican Party last year, predicted the party will coalesce around McCain if he wins the nomination. But until then, many leaders are tepid in their support.
“There are a lot of passionate conservatives who don’t believe in what Sen. McCain believes in,” he said. Pullen is among those who have criticized McCain’s position on immigration, but it goes beyond a single issue. He cited the senator’s vote against President Bush’s tax cuts and backing of campaign finance reform.
Many Arizona conservatives think illegal immigrants are ruining their state, driving up crime and imposing billions of dollars in service costs. Arizona has an estimated half-million illegal immigrants, representing about 10% of the state’s population, among the highest proportions in the nation.
The conservatives say it is not necessary to round up illegal immigrants — they argue that many will leave voluntarily if they face greater difficulties and legal obstacles. It is an approach that appears directly opposite of McCain’s sensibilities and views.
A law written by Pearce would levy big fines on employers who hire illegal immigrants and will close companies that repeatedly violate the law. The bill was passed with overwhelming support in the Legislature, including a big chunk of the Democrats, and signed by Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.
“We don’t need to round up illegal immigrants,” Pearce said. “Just enforce the laws. At traffic stops, if the driver doesn’t have a driver’s license, any identification and doesn’t speak English, it is common sense that something is wrong.”
The law is under attack by both the business community and civil liberties groups, and legal challenges are preventing it from going until effect until March 1. Still, it may already be having its desired effect. Demand for social services is down, and school enrollments in Latino neighborhoods are unexpectedly dropping. Officials in other states and Mexico have complained that immigrants are streaming out of Arizona, creating demands for services elsewhere.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an elected Republican, has told his officers to enforce immigration laws in the course of routine police activity and has coordinated the roles of 160 deputies with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
“We have made a lot of arrests,” Arpaio said. “We have 10,000 people [illegal immigrants] in jail and in tent cities.”
Arpaio, a nationally known figure in law enforcement, is an honorary campaign chairman for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “I like Mitt’s position on immigration, not the senator’s,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Legislature is weighing a law that would compel local police departments to follow Arpaio’s lead, ending what conservatives call “sanctuary” policies that allow illegal immigrants to avoid deportation.
The anti-immigration sentiment is far from what many moderate Republicans in Arizona and across the nation believe is reasonable.
“There is a tremendous amount of misinformation out there, and it is intentional,” said George Gascon, chief of the Mesa Police Department and a former senior officer in Los Angeles Police Department.
Gascon, who describes himself as a longtime Republican, cited a list of academic studies that showed immigrants commit proportionally fewer crimes than native-born Americans. He added that the number of illegal immigrants in state jails was close to their 10% proportion of the general population, despite vastly inflated claims to the contrary.
The new law is also scaring businesses. Sheridan Bailey, who runs a steel fabrication business in Phoenix, has 100 employees, many of them foreign-born. He worries about his potential vulnerability if even one of them is residing here illegally.
“It’s a one-guillotine-fits-all solution,” he said.
Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney who is helping raise funds for McCain, is among those who say the senator is not out of sync with Arizonans.
“The mainstream Repub- lican view in Arizona is close to McCain’s, but the people who speak the loudest have taken control of the agenda,” he said.
“There are some voters who will not vote for McCain because of his views on immigration,” Charlton added, “but not enough to affect the election.