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Illegal Immigration as GOP's Wedge Issue

David Corn's "Illegal Immigration: A GOP Issue That Works?" in The Nation merits a thougtful read by Democratic strategists and campaigners. On the heels of the Dems' narrow loss in CA-50, Corn writes:

If the Ds cannot pick up a seat when an R is nabbed on bribery charges and tossed into prison, that's a sign that the "culture of corruption" charge (see Jack Abramoff) they are campaigning upon may not do the trick in November...

Without reading too much into the results of one race, there is good reason for Democrats to worry: illegal immigration. Bilbray hyped his support for tough border enforcement, siding with the House Republicans' keep-'em-out/toss-'em-out approach and attacking the Bush-favored Senate compromise position that blends a (convoluted) path-to-citizenship with steps to beef up the border. And that might have won him the race. During the campaign, Bilbray called for building a fence "from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico." Celebrating his victory, Bilbray said, "The president proposing amnesty was absolutely a big problem. In fact, it wasn't until I was able to highlight the fact that I did not agree with my friends in the Senate or my friend in the White House on amnesty that you really saw the polls start supporting me strongly."

However, as Adam Nagourney notes in his New York Times post-mortem on the CA-50 vote:

...Whatever disadvantages the Republicans had here, this is, with some notable exceptions, about as friendly ground as they are likely to find in the months ahead. This was never considered a truly contested district, and most of the districts where both parties are focusing their energy and money are less reliably Republican than this one.

Republicans will be hard-pressed to duplicate that expensive and elaborate campaign they waged for Mr. Bilbray in every district where an incumbent is under assault.

Of the 10 most competitive races for House seats now held by Republicans, as identified by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, only 2 had Republican margins of victory in 2004 greater than the one posted by Mr. Cunningham here that year. Of those two, one is held by Representative Bob Ney of Ohio, who is under federal investigation in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the other by Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who is retiring.

Corn may be right that immigrant-bashing will trump gay-bashing and flag-burner bashing as the wedgie of choice for Rove & Co in the months ahead. But any gains the Rs make through immigrant-bashing will be at least somewhat offset by losses in Hispanic votes for GOP candidates. Still, Dems in states experiencing high rates of Latino growth should prepare for similar versions of the Bilbray strategy --- and get seriously busy registering Hispanic voters.