The Great Illegal Immigration Myth of ’06

Since the election, you may have heard pro-amnesty Republicans or liberals saying something like this, “The 2006 election proves that being tough on illegal immigration doesn’t work as a political issue. Look at J.D. Hayworth, John Hostettler, Randy Graf, and Henry Bonilla. After that debacle, the GOP is surely going to cave on illegal immigration now.”

Well, as someone who followed the election very closely and did a better job of calling winners and losers than almost all of the political pundits out there (My final predictions, 5 Senate seats lost and 22-29 seats in the House lost. Final numbers, 6 Senate seats lost and 30 House seats), I can tell you that being tough on illegal immigration didn’t hurt the GOP in 2006. Now you may be skeptical of that because it doesn’t square up with the conventional wisdom that you’ve been hearing, but let me make a case to you.

First off, let’s hit the candidates that get mentioned over and over.

John Hostettler was an incumbent congressman who supported the House illegal immigration bill, but he was also an odd bird when it came to fund raising. Essentially, he didn’t do it. In the end, despite the fact that everyone knew he was in trouble for months, Hostettler only raised $586,314 compared to the $1,728,054 that his opponent raked in. That’s the biggest reason why Hostettler lost. His position on illegal immigration had nothing to do with it.

Randy Graf, a tough on illegal immigration conservative, who was attempting to retain a seat held by Congressman Jim Kolbe, was torpedoed by the Republican Party. The Republican National Committee spent over $200,000 supporting his opponent, Steve Huffman, in the primary. Then, after Graf soundly defeated Huffman, the RNC threw a tantrum and refused to support him against his extremely well funded challenger, Gabrielle Giffords. Additionally, Jim Kolbe also refused to endorse Graf. This allowed Giffords, who had a massive fund raising advantage, to successfully portray Graf as a candidate who was too extreme for his own party and that, not his position on illegal immigration, led to his defeat.

J.D. Hayworth’s loss was particularly noteworthy because unlike the other candidates being mentioned, he could fairly be called one of the leaders of the “tough on illegal immigration” crowd. However, what you will never hear amnesty fans mention about Hayworth’s loss is that his opponent, Harry Mitchell, actually tried to run to his right on the illegal immigration issue. For example, on October 24, 2006, here’s a message that was posted prominently on the front of Mitchell’s web page:

“I’m proud to show you the second television spot of our campaign which highlights an important issue to all Arizonan(s): securing our border and ending illegal immigration.

My opponent likes to talk tough about immigration, but the truth is he and those in Washington have failed in their responsibility to secure our border.

The number of illegal immigrants in our state has increased 400% during his tenure in Congress.

My opponent has rewarded illegal immigration by voting for amnesty four times. Just last month, he voted against 12,000 additional Border Patrol agents and against implementing the border security recommendations of the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission. In his 12 years in Congress, J.D. has given us a lot of rhetoric, but not a lot of results.”

Now, after reading that, does it sound like J.D. Hayworth had problems because he was “too tough” on illegal immigration? No, it doesn’t.

Last but not least, we have Henry Bonilla, who may be the only candidate in the entire nation who was actually hurt by his tough stand on illegal immigration. Of course, he also ran a terrible campaign and came within 1% of winning the election without a runoff. Had Bonilla spent more of his huge war chest (He had over a million dollars in the bank when the first election occurred), there never would have been a runoff and he would have been reelected. And that’s even though after the Texas redistricting, Bonilla ended up in a district that was 65% Hispanic.

So, now we’ve discussed 4 Republicans who lost in 2006 and were opponents of amnesty. But, what about all the Republicans who were soft on illegal immigration in 2006 and lost as well? Percentage wise, being soft on illegal immigration was much more dangerous to the political health of Republicans than being tough on illegal immigration. These statistics from Roy Beck at NumbersUSA certainly seem to support that conclusion:

# 9.6% with an A grade lost
# 25.0% with an F grade lost
# 9.2% with a B grade lost
# 6.4% with a C grade lost
# 9.5% with a D grade lost

In other words, about 9.6% of the tough guys on illegal immigration lost, while 25% of the amnesty crowd went down to defeat. Along those same lines, these numbers from the same article seem to be rather compelling:

* 11.5% of all Republican seats in Congress were lost as Democrats took back control of Congress

* But only 6.7% of the Members of Tancredo’s Immigration Reform Caucus lost their seats.

If being tough on illegal immigration is supposed to be such a killer, then how can it be that the members of Tom Tancredo’s Reform Caucus outperformed the rest of the House? The question answers itself.

But, what about the Hispanic vote? Didn’t the GOP lose some Hispanic voters because of their illegal immigration stance? Yes, but the numbers related to illegal immigration were undoubtedly fairly small. Now, that’s not what you’ll hear from amnesty proponents. They’ll point out that the percentage of Hispanics voting for the GOP dropped from 44% in 2004 to 30% in 2006. However, what they don’t mention is that 44% was an all-time high for the Hispanic vote and that the support for the GOP dropped in almost every demographic group in 2006. For example, GOP support from Jewish voters dropped from 22% in 2004 to 12% in 2006. Support from Independent men dropped from 51% in 2004 to 41% in 2006. Support from women without a high school diploma dropped from 48% in 2004 to 30% in 2006. In comparison, is the drop in Hispanic support really all that large? No, not really. Moreover, if you compare the numbers from the last off year election in 2002 to the numbers in 2006, the drop in Hispanic support for the GOP is even smaller. It goes from 38% in 2002 to 30% in 2006. That’s actually a percentage drop of 1% less than that of white males over the same period (63% in 2002 to 54% in 2006). So, did the illegal immigration issue hurt the GOP with Hispanics? Maybe a little, but even if illegal immigration hadn’t been an issue, it seems likely that the GOP would have probably still dropped 8 to 10 points with Hispanics in 2006.

Furthermore, if you look at how the 2006 elections played out, it’ll become obvious that the amnesty plan being pushed by the Senate was not a popular policy. All during 2006, across the country, local governments passed laws designed to make life tough on illegal immigrants. Moreover, in competitive races in the country, the voters were almost always given a choice between a candidate that was genuinely serious about securing our border and a candidate that just pretended to be serious about securing the border for political purposes. So while candidates on both sides of the race aired commercials talking about how they were the real choice for people who were serious about stopping illegal immigration, almost nobody ran any advertisements promising to allow illegals to become citizens or promoting amnesty. That tells you a lot about popular comprehensive illegal immigration reform is when you get right down to it. Additionally, percentage wise, tough on illegal immigration Republican candidates won more races than candidates who had a poor voting record on the issue.

What it all adds up to is that the GOP had a lousy year across the board for a lot of reasons, but being “too tough” on illegal immigration wasn’t one of the problems that they had. If anything, the miserable performance of George Bush and the Senate GOP on the issue made it impossible for Republicans in the House to be credible when they told their constituents that they could trust them to stop illegal immigration. In other words, the GOP suffered more from being “too soft” on illegal immigration than from being “too tough.”

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