Arizona Immigration Law Is Making Life So Awkward for the GOP


Arizona's new law on questioning and detaining suspected illegal immigrants may have buoyed the political fortunes of the state's governor, Jan Brewer, but it's making things really awkward for some prominent figures in the party. On the one hand, it's very popular with the conservative grassroots, the people who vote in primaries, make donations, and misspell protest signs. So you definitely don't want to piss off those people. On the other side, you have Hispanics, a rapidly growing demographic, one that isn't rigidly aligned with either party — Bush won 44 percent in 2004, Obama gained back some ground in 2008 with a 67 percent share — but has the potential to push southwestern and mountain states from swing-state category into true-blue if it does start to turn completely away from the GOP. If you care about the future of the Republican Party in the western half of the United States, you don't want to piss them off, either.

It may already be too late, actually — as Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos noted earlier this week:

Arizona Latinos have gone, literally overnight, from being perhaps the most pro-GOP in the nation, to joining California as the most anti-GOP ones in the nation ...

Within a decade, Arizona will be as reliably Democratic as California is today. And when that day arrives, we'll be able to trace it all to last Friday's passage of SB 1070.

With people like California congressman Duncan Hunter suggesting the deportation of American-born children of illegal immigrants, it seems like things are only going to get worse for the GOP as the debate heats up. But some national leaders aren't ready to give up on the Hispanic vote just yet, nor are they willing to invite the ire of their base. The result is an ungainly tightrope walk that tries to avoid alienating either group. Exhibit A: House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's refusal to say whether he supports the Arizona law during an interview with ABC News yesterday:

Best line: "Now, are you asking whether I think that America is a country of opportunity? Absolutely!" No! We're asking, very specifically, if you support this law.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was similarly evasive on Fox News Sunday a few days ago:

"I haven't studied it. I know it's quite controversial. But studying a state law is not something I normally do."

And Mike Huckabee, a potential presidential candidate, found himself in a similar predicament in a Q&A with the Dallas Morning News:

Do you agree with the recently passed law in Arizona that empowers law enforcement officials to check whether a person being stopped or detained is a U.S. citizen? It's not my place to agree or disagree. I understand why it was passed and why 70 percent of the people of Arizona support it. They're angry, they're frustrated, and they're scared. There are a half-million illegals who have poured into their state. ... They feel under siege, and I understand that. What does concerns me is that if it's not carried out and applied carefully, you could end up in the situation where people are indiscriminately stopped who are absolute citizens. ... America is a lot like Disney World in that once you get a ticket, you're in. You don't have to keep showing your ticket to keep riding the rides. That's the whole point of liberty.

Huckabee's strategy — sympathy for supporters of the law, concerns about "abuse" — is probably the least destructive one that Republicans can hope for at this point. But taking the mushy middle ground isn't going to prevent Hispanic voters from abandoning the GOP. Reason No. 1 that some Democratic leaders want to make immigration reform a priority this year.