In Porous Border, GOP Sees An Opening

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006

ORO VALLEY, Ariz. -- When 11-term Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) announced his retirement, he bestowed his endorsement on soft-spoken state Rep. Steve Huffman. Only someone in his own moderate mold, Kolbe declared, could prevail in a demographically diverse district stretching from the affluent foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains above Tucson to the rugged border of Mexico.

But when the long-simmering issue of illegal immigration boiled over this year, Huffman lost his favored status in the Sept. 12 Republican primary in the 8th Congressional District and was gasping to keep up with anti-immigration firebrands in his party -- and even with some in the other.

"Stop the invasion," conservative Democrat Bill Johnson bellowed at a candidates' forum last week, as the sun set through the picture window of the Church of the Nazarene here.

"Not only can we secure the border -- we must secure the border," trumpeted former state representative Randy Graf, widely considered the new front-runner for the Republican nomination.

There seems to be little doubt that a hard line against illegal immigration is the safer position in a GOP primary. But many Republicans believe, in a year when many national trends are not blowing their way, that it is also the safer position in a general election.

It is a counterintuitive strategy: The way to win a swing district is not with a campaign aimed at swing voters. Instead, the goal is to motivate conservatives with anti-illegal-immigration appeals, hoping they overcome their disenchantment with GOP policies in Washington.

Of course, Republicans also hope to snare independents and even some wayward Democrats with the immigration issue. But they plan to do it with hot words -- not with the cool centrism that is more typical in districts where both parties have run competitively.

In a way, this strategy borrows from President Bush's rally-the-base approach to winning reelection in 2004, even though it is based on spurning Bush's stance on the immigration issue. Like Kolbe, the Bush administration wants tough border security measures combined with new, legal avenues toward work and citizenship for the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. Many conservatives fear this would be a de facto amnesty for undocumented workers.

It may be little surprise that immigration is a flash point in this district, which is 18 percent Hispanic. But the issue echoes in House campaigns around the country, and the tenor of the debate on the Republican side has grown increasingly unified and increasingly punitive.

In Upstate New York, Republican state Sen. Raymond A. Meier has made a border crackdown and opposition to "amnesty" for illegal immigrants centerpieces of his race to hold the seat of retiring Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert for his party. House Republicans held an immigration field hearing this month in Dubuque, Iowa, where Rep. Jim Nussle is retiring from his highly competitive seat, to let Republican candidate Mike Whalen highlight his proposal for a tough employment-verification system for immigrant workers.

Last week, House Republican field hearings in San Diego explored the societal and governmental costs of illegal immigrants' use of health-care facilities and welfare. Another in Houston looked at "the criminal consequences of illegal immigration." One near here, in Sierra Vista, examined the nation's strained technical capacity to monitor "the efforts of terrorists and drug cartels" trying to "infiltrate American soil."

At a field hearing Tuesday in Gainesville, Ga., Rep. Charles Whitlow Norwood Jr. (R-Ga.) brushed off complaints by those who wanted a more balanced witness list. "What I wanted was witnesses who agree with me, not disagree with me," he told reporters.

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