Border debate expected to decide Senate race in Arizona

By JENNIFER TALHEIM | Associated Press
April 23, 2006

Experts say election will depend on who is more motivated to go to the polls — conservative voters or Latinos

WASHINGTON — Nowhere in the country may immigration play a bigger role in politics than in Arizona’s U.S. Senate race, in which incumbent Republican Sen. Jon Kyl is seeking a third term.

Seven months from Election Day, Democrats and immigrantrights activists are hoping to take advantage of anger about the issue and mobilize Latino voters behind Kyl’s Democratic challenger, Jim Pederson.

Meanwhile, experts say Arizona Republicans are using immigration to keep conservative voters engaged, hoping their support for more restrictions makes conservatives eager to go to the polls for Kyl despite dissatisfaction with the national GOP and President Bush.

“It is clear this is going to trigger a lot of voting that might not have otherwise occurred,” said pollster Earl de Berge of the Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center.

Experts say the result will turn on who is more motivated to go to the polls come Nov. 7.

Kyl has played a major role in a recent Senate debate over immigration policy, arguing that immigrants should go home before applying to return to the United States as guest workers. His position has spurred both sides of the immigration debate.

In the last month, hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of Phoenix and Tucson opposed to austere restrictions on illegal immigration.

Many marchers targeted Kyl specifically, waving signs that read, “Senator Kyl, we want permanent residency” and “Senator Kyl, no more wall,” said immigrant-rights activist Jennifer Allen, director of the Tucsonbased Border Action Network.

The marches “showed that the community has strength and that the community has power, and we are willing to take to the streets,” she said.

Allen said her group and others will launch voter-registration campaigns aimed at getting Latinos who live on the border to go to the polls.

But while Latinos marched in huge numbers, conservatives also held counter-demonstrations, and the issue has dominated talk radio and other media.

Experts say while the marches might eventually mobilize Latino voters, it could take time for them to register in large enough numbers to make a difference.

Meanwhile, experts say, Kyl might be saying just what he needs to to please Republican voters.

“I assume Kyl has made a calculation and knows the politics of immigration in Arizona,” said Thomas Mann, who studies congressional issues for the Brookings Institution think tank. “I’m guessing … he’s thought this one through.”

Kyl said in an interview with The Associated Press that while the marches might have awakened Latino voters, they have motivated others as well.

“I’m getting at least 500 calls a day, and I don’t think there’s been one yet that hasn’t taken the position that I should get tougher and get the border secured and enforce the law,” he said. “I think there is a silent majority out there that may be getting concerned as well. It’s hard to say what the impact of all this is.”

But Kyl says he’s sticking to his plan because it’s the right thing to do. “If that hurts me politically, so be it,” he said.

The answer could turn on whether the Senate acts on immigration this year.

A Senate committee approved legislation that would have created a guest-worker program and a path for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship.

Kyl opposed the bill because he is opposed to giving citizenship to people who broke the law to come to the United States.

Pederson’s campaign has attacked Kyl’s actions, accusing him of working against a compromise immigration bill. Pederson supports the proposal approved by the Senate committee.

But experts say anything that keeps the focus on immigration, and not on Bush or issues that have disenchanted voters, probably helps Kyl.

“This is a diversionary issue,” de Berge said. “Some people believe Kyl is vulnerable because he’s so close to the president on Iraq and other issues. The question is, how long will it linger?”