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GOP Finds Hot Button in Illegal Immigration
Special Election in Massachusetts Could Be Indicative of Democratic Weak Spot

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

When Republican Jim Ogonowski launched his long-shot bid for Congress, he prepared for an upbeat campaign in his Democratic, working-class district of Massachusetts, based on a winning r¿sum¿: affable hay farmer, former Air Force lieutenant colonel, and brother of an American Airlines pilot whose hijacked plane slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

But by last month, although opinion polling showed that he was well liked, he was still running 10 points behind Democrat Niki Tsongas with just weeks to go before a special election. The campaign needed a way to go beyond biography, to persuade Northern Massachusetts to vote Republican. They found it in illegal immigration.

On Tuesday, Ogonowski still fell short, but Tsongas's 51 to 45 percent victory was a shocker in a district where both John F. Kerry and Al Gore took 57 percent of the vote, and where liberal Democratic Rep. Martin T. Meehan served comfortably for eight terms. The underwhelming victory of the wife of deceased former senator Paul Tsongas has rekindled Democratic concerns about an immigration issue they had hoped had been put to rest.

"This issue has real implications for the country. It captures all the American people's anger and frustration not only with immigration, but with the economy," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and an architect of the Democratic congressional victories of 2006. "It's self-evident. This is a big problem."

Republicans, sensing a major vulnerability, have been hammering Democrats, forcing Congress to face the question of illegal immigration on every bill they can find, from agriculture spending and housing assistance to the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

House Democrats are so concerned that they have resumed talks on a new legislative push, even though the collapse of an immigration deal in the Senate this spring has left virtually no chance that a final bill can be passed in this Congress.

But even in the early stages of this renewed effort, negotiations have only underscored the party's problems. Some Democratic leaders want what they call a "mini bill," emphasizing border control, penalties on firms that employ illegal immigrants and stronger efforts to deny illegal immigrants government benefits. But Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), the point man on the bill, said he will never accept a measure that does not include a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented workers in the country.

"I think the Democrats are on the wrong side of this issue, and if they continue down this path, they are going to lose a lot of seats," said Matt Wylie, a strategist for the Ogonowski campaign.

The issue has shifted since concerns about illegal immigrants triggered angry calls for border fences and deportation two years ago. Now, voter anger appears to revolve around the belief that illegal immigrants are unfairly consuming government benefits, a fear that stems more from economic uncertainty than culture clashes, Democratic and Republican pollsters say.

Those concerns are not everywhere. But they are glaring in some of the white, working-class districts in Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina and New Hampshire that gave the Democrats control of the House last year. And they were on clear display in Lowell, Mass.

"Immigration played into the economic issue," said Francis Talty, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who followed the Tsongas-Ogonowski contest. "Do you want illegal immigrants to get in-state [university] tuition? Do you want them to get driver's licenses? Do you want their children to get benefits under SCHIP? It was the benefit side that has real resonance, not the deportation thing."

A new national poll for National Public Radio, conducted by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, found that voters are more likely to side with Democrats than Republicans on war, taxes and spending, the economy, health care and health insurance for children, often by wide margins. On immigration, the Republicans hold a 49 to 44 percent lead.

But even that might be deceptively tight, said Glen Bolger, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies. In the poll, the GOP position was framed as getting control of the border, requiring illegal immigrants to reenter the country legally, stopping illegal immigrants from getting government benefits and sending illegal immigrants who are criminals packing. The Democratic position was, "It is impractical to expel 12 million people, but we need tougher controls at the borders, tougher penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants and we should bar illegal immigrants from getting most government benefits, while allowing the law-abiding immigrants to get on a long path to citizenship."

That Democratic message is much tougher than the one most voters are hearing, Bolger argued. "They're actually in worse shape than they think they are," he said.

Dustin Olson, Ogonowski's campaign manager, said the candidate did not intend to make government benefits for illegal immigrants a centerpiece of the campaign, but it came up unbidden, again and again.

Internal polling found that Ogonowski's tough stance was winning 60 percent to 30 percent over the positions articulated by Tsongas, said Rob Autry, another Public Opinion Strategies partner who served as Ogonowski's pollster. Ogonowski's position on taxes had a narrower, 13 percentage point lead. Every other issue "was dicey," he said.

Then, just two days before Tuesday's balloting, Tsongas said illegal immigrants should each be allowed to get a driver's license. The final radio ad of the Ogonowski insurgency intoned, "And now for something truly incredible. You already know Niki Tsongas supports amnesty for illegal immigrants, but today we learned Niki Tsongas would go even further. Tsongas told the Boston Herald she wants to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants."

John Walsh, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said the final vote proved the limits of the immigration message. The district may be less Democratic than the presidential numbers make it appear, he cautioned. Republican gubernatorial candidates have carried it handily since 1990, until Deval L. Patrick, the current Democratic governor, won it with 51 percent of the vote, the same percentage Tsongas took.

If Ogonowski's internal polling showed him trailing by 10 points in September, his immigration blitz made up only five points, he said.

But in districts where Democrats do not have five points to give, those numbers loom large. "For the American people, and therefore all of us, it's emerged as the third rail of American politics," Emanuel said. "And anyone who doesn't realize that isn't with the American people."

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