While Utah GOP and Democratic candidates for the Legislature and governor may not, individually or together as a party, view statewide efforts at illegal immigration control in a pure political light, the effects of the highly-charged immigration battle now on Capitol Hill will have real impacts in some November elections, experts say.
For example, supporting Rep. Steven Sandstrom’s Arizona-like illegal immigration bill may help many GOP legislative candidates – if those candidates are running in traditionally conservative areas.
On the other hand, it’s a no-brainer that a Democrat running in Salt Lake City can get advantage by severely denouncing Sandstrom, an Orem conservative, and secure more votes from progressive and Hispanic voters.
The governor’s race may be a bit more problematic for both sides.
Dave Hansen, state GOP chairman, says the illegal immigration debate “is a good one to have – for illegal immigration would be an issue this year whether we had Sandstrom’s bill or not. It is just there.”
But Hansen doesn’t think it will have much of an impact on the race between GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Democrat Peter Corroon, the Salt Lake County mayor, one way or the other.
“The issue in the governor’s race is Gary Herbert,” says Hansen. “Like any other (executive) incumbent it’s a question of whether you think he is doing a good job. And by all the poll numbers, Utahns are comfortable with the governor, he’ll win and he’ll win big,” predicts Hansen, a long-time Utah political observer.
Herbert manages state government. And Utah continues to get good reviews on its fiscal conservativism. “It is the best managed state in the nation,” said Hansen. “And that’s Herbert.” While Utah struggles economically, like the rest of the nation, job growth here is gaining and “it is one of the best places in the U.S. to do business – and is recognized as such,” said Hansen. “The economy and growth, that will be the major debate in the governor’s race – not immigration.”
Wayne Holland, state Democratic Party chairman, agrees – although he certainly sees Utah’s economic health differently.
“Of all the people who talk to me about the governor’s race, (illegal immigration) is not there – it’s the poor state of the economy, especially job growth,” says Holland, who recently returned from a meeting of the National Democratic Committee.
The sense among national Democrats, expressed there, Holland said, is that immigration is now boiling down not only to a state level, but even into state House and Senate districts in the different legislatures.
“There are pockets of interest (in illegal immigration) even in Salt Lake County,” said Holland.
“Up on the east bench, you won’t find immigration in the top three issues – hardly even mentioned. But over on the west side (of the county), yes, very important. If not No. 1 then certainly in the top three.”
But while not naming any specific persons as responsible, Holland says pushing illegal immigration this election “is a scare tactic.”
He believes it is one way to drive down the turnout of Utah Hispanics, who may traditionally vote Democratic, because even though Hispanic voters would be legal (you can’t really register to vote without proving residency), “just all the talk” about illegal immigration “could drive down the Hispanic turnout.”
“We know the people pushing this illegal immigration issue are going to vote” – conservative Republicans and Tea Party supporters.
“The question is, will the other side bother to vote?” asks Holland. “I don’t think we’ll see the kind of scare tactics here we saw (by Republicans) in Florida in 2000. But will that element be present here? Yes. We see it now and expect” to see it as the November general election approaches, said Holland.
As outlined in previous UtahPolicy.com articles, Hansen believes Republicans have a chance to pick up at least one Democratic state Senate seat (on the Salt Lake Valley’s Westside) and several Democratic House seats.
But those swing districts have significant Hispanic populations – in West Valley City and Magna. Can Republican candidates win there with the hard-line conservative attitude toward illegal immigration raging in the Legislature?
“Yes, I think we can,” said Hansen. “Utahns are just glad someone is willing to stand up for what is right on this issue – stand for what they believe in. They are tired of (immigration) talk in vague generalities. I think this can help us even in traditionally Democratic areas” of the state, Hansen said.
But Holland says sometimes even the best laid plans can backfire. And there is that possibility on the immigration issue – progressive Utahns could say enough is enough and work to get themselves and fellow-thinkers to the polls Nov. 2 – especially on Salt Lake County’s Westside.
Illegal immigration’s political impact “will really play out over the long run,” said Holland. If the extremists in the GOP win out on this one, “then the Republican Party, especially nationwide, really will become a party of white men over 50 years old – it will be unable to be the majority party” again, said Holland.
But while Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, agrees that illegal immigration would only have short-term political gain for Utah Republicans, he warns Democrats that they have to have something substantial to offer as an alternative.
“Utahns want action,” said Jowers, who considered running for governor this year as a Republican. And if Sandstorm’s bill is the only viable illegal immigration bill in the 2011 Legislature, then opponents, either moderate Republicans or Democrats, have only themselves to blame when it passes.
“I’ve had some mainstream Republicans ask me what they should do – they don’t like Sandstrom’s bill. I say they have to have a more reasonable alternative. I’ve told Democrats that Utahns want – demand – that something must be done on illegal immigration. If the federal government won’t do it, then states will,” said Jowers.
He doesn’t believe illegal immigration “will have a major impact” in big races this year – like governor. But it can affect some individual legislative contests in certain areas, he says. “Right now it clearly helps Republicans – because they’re saying they will do something.”
“But if what comes out of the Legislature is viewed as too extreme – while that may provide some short term aid, it will hurt Utah Republicans in the long term.”
Jowers said you don’t have to look too far back in California’s illegal immigration history to see the danger to Republicans. Former San Diego mayor Pete Wilson decided that as governor he would push tougher illegal immigration laws. “And that took California, which was then a swing state, and made it a strong Democratic state. It killed the Republican Party there.”
This week, even the Utah GOP Hispanic Caucus came out against Sandstrom’s bill, saying it is too severe.
Utah doesn’t have the number of Hispanics that California has. But demographers believe the western United States will move more and more Hispanic over the next decades. And Hispanics make up the fastest growing sector of the LDS faith worldwide.
The illegal immigration issue was clearly put in the partisan political spot light this past week when Sandstrom formally introduced his bill at a press conference (where he was heckled by some opponents) and Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, and some other legislative Democrats announced that they would offer what they consider an alternative action, some kind of “reasonable” program that would discourage illegal immigrants coming into the United States, while treating those already here “with respect.”
(You can read about Sandstrom’s bill here. The Democrats’ guest worker bill is still being written.)
Sandstrom’s bill doesn’t deal with guest workers or punishing employers who hire illegal immigrants.
The guest worker idea will be in the 2011 Legislature, with at least two GOP lawmakers – Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, saying they will have guest worker bills.
Other entities will also have input. The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce has a guest worker/immigration plan, as does the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank.
GOP Attorney General Mark Shurtleff also has a guest worker/immigration policy. You can view those ideas at: Shurtleff: http://www.utahag.blogspot.com/; Sutherland Institute: http://www.sutherlandinstitute.org/uploads/position_immigration.pdf and another at http://www.sutherlandinstitute.org/uploads/onus_or_opportunity.pdf; and
Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce: http://www.saltlakechamber.org/policy/immigration/ and at: http://www.saltlakechamber.org/policy/immigration/workerdetail/.
The 800-pound gorilla silently sitting in the illegal immigration room is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So far, LDS Church leaders have not spoken out on the Arizona bill nor Sandstrom’s version.
Sandstrom says he’s confident that church leaders will not oppose his measure, while some Democrats hope leaders will come out with statements either asking the state not to take action on hunting down and expelling illegals or just opposing Sandstrom’s effort directly.
A strong stand by LDS leaders could well be a game-changer on the issue. And if it came before Nov. 2, it could also play out in local elections – depending on hot illegal immigration already is in specific races.