Border Patrol

(By Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)
Monday, July 24, 2006

In a year of bad omens for Republicans, there is at least one potential bright spot: immigration.

Most Republicans in the House and many in the Senate are pushing to crack down on illegal immigration and are vowing to fight anything that could be construed as amnesty or guest-worker status for undocumented workers already in the United States. This stance excites the conservative base at a time when many on the right are disenchanted with their party over high spending and other issues.

The point is not that hard-line sentiment against illegal immigration is necessarily shared by a majority of the electorate: A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that most voters prefer a middle-ground position. But many Republican candidates are wagering that those with the most passionate views are voters against illegal immigration who will show up in large numbers.

What is striking is how dynamic this issue is far from the U.S.-Mexico border. Eastern Iowa's 1st Congressional District is 92 percent white, with a Hispanic population of 2 percent. But immigration was a flash point in a recent three-way Republican primary. Winner Mike Whalen hit the issue hard with calls for ID cards to ensure that businesses do not hire illegal immigrants.

Whalen will face Democrat Bruce Braley, a trial lawyer, who has cautioned against using immigration to divide people. The seat is being vacated by RepublicanJim Nussle, who is running for governor. With a Democratic tilt in recent presidential elections, Iowa's 1st is considered among the most likely districts in the nation to switch parties.

If Iowa is an unlikely testing ground for immigration politics, Arizona is no surprise. The 8th District, on the Mexican border, is 18 percent Hispanic, and it has an open seat, thanks to retiring Republican Jim Kolbe. The issue could also be pivotal in the Senate race between incumbent Republican Jon Kyl and Democrat Jim Pederson.

It will play as well in the race for an open House seat in Colorado's 7th District, in the Denver suburbs.

In nearly every place where the immigration debate is central, the political question is the same: Will the more severe stance of many Republican candidates increase voter turnout sufficiently to offset any damage done among Hispanic voters and political independents who prefer a more accommodating approach?

-- Jonathan Weisman

© 2006 The Washington Post Company