In Colorado, Republicans Avoid Talking About Immigration

Even immigration hard-liner Tom Tancredo isn’t convinced it’s the issue that led to Eric Cantor’s primary defeat.

US Congressman Tom Tancredo smiles as he addresses the crowd prior to the arrival of the Iranian opposition group People's Mujahedeen's leader in exile, Maryam Radjavi (unseen) during a rally organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran on June 26, 2010 in Taverny, outside Paris. Iranians call for a tougher policy in Iran. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
June 22, 2014, 9:50 a.m.

COL­OR­ADO SPRINGS, Colo. — After Dave Brat stunned the polit­ic­al world by oust­ing House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor in Vir­gin­ia, anti-il­leg­al-im­mig­ra­tion act­iv­ists turned their at­ten­tion to Col­or­ado, where one of their fa­vor­ites, Tom Tan­credo, is run­ning for gov­ernor and has a cred­ible shot at win­ning the GOP nom­in­a­tion.

Un­like Brat, Tan­credo is a fa­mil­i­ar fig­ure in state polit­ics over his out­spoken op­pos­i­tion to im­mig­ra­tion. He ran for pres­id­ent on the is­sue in 2008 and heads polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tees sup­port­ing like-minded can­did­ates. In colum­nist Michelle Malkin, he even had his own con­ser­vat­ive opin­ion lead­er back­ing his cam­paign, who tweeted after Brat’s vic­tory: “Anti-am­nesty re­volt has just be­gun. Col­or­ado is next!”

But in a sign that im­mig­ra­tion isn’t quite as po­tent a force as ad­vert­ised with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party, Tan­credo rarely brings up the is­sue on the cam­paign trail. He’s been los­ing ground to his lead­ing primary op­pon­ent, former Rep. Bob Beau­prez, who has ex­pressed sup­port for policies al­low­ing il­leg­al im­mig­rants to re­ceive tem­por­ary work per­mits. In a press re­lease cel­eb­rat­ing Brat’s vic­tory, Tan­credo’s cam­paign didn’t men­tion im­mig­ra­tion once; it in­stead called Can­tor’s de­feat a les­son that “es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates ig­nore their most ar­dent voters at their per­il.” And even Tan­credo him­self isn’t con­vinced that Can­tor lost his seat be­cause of voter dis­sat­is­fac­tion over his po­s­i­tion on the is­sue.

“I’m still not sure the ex­tent im­mig­ra­tion played a role in that race. I do not know how it played in the Vir­gin­ia primary. I don’t want to al­lege something that’s not fac­tu­al,” Tan­credo said. “My im­pres­sion is that it was more than one is­sue; im­mig­ra­tion may have played a role in it. But the fact that he spent more on steak din­ners than Brat did on the whole cam­paign, that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t res­on­ate with a lot of people.”

In the Col­or­ado gubernat­ori­al primary, im­mig­ra­tion is the is­sue that nev­er emerged, des­pite the pres­ence of Tan­credo in the race and the grow­ing hu­man­it­ari­an crisis on the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der. Re­pub­lic­an strategists say, des­pite Can­tor’s loss, it’s not the driv­ing force for the con­ser­vat­ive base that Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law, new en­ergy reg­u­la­tions, or even the Com­mon Core edu­ca­tion­al guidelines are. A stag­nant eco­nomy has slowed the level of im­mig­ra­tion in­to the Den­ver sub­urbs, al­le­vi­at­ing the strains on pub­lic ser­vices. And in rur­al Col­or­ado’s West­ern Slope and East­ern Plains, farm­ers and ranch­ers are de­pend­ent on the labor that im­mig­rants provide, do­ing jobs they ar­gue nat­ive-born Amer­ic­ans won’t do.

At the Pro­tein Pro­du­cer Sum­mit in Col­or­ado Springs on Tues­day, where the GOP gubernat­ori­al can­did­ates par­ti­cip­ated in a for­um, the cow­boy hat-wear­ing at­tendees gen­er­ally ex­pressed sup­port for guest-work­er pro­grams to provide ne­ces­sary labor for farm­ing and ranch­ing, ir­rit­a­tion for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s in­ab­il­ity to cur­tail il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion, and a vague anxi­ety over the chan­ging demo­graph­ic and polit­ic­al makeup of the state, at­trib­uted to il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion.

“Most of us are op­posed to am­nesty. Am­nesty isn’t ac­cept­able. But we need work­ers for ag­ri­cul­ture to do jobs that we can’t get Amer­ic­ans to do,” said former state Rep. J. Paul Brown, cam­paign­ing for the rur­al south­west­ern Col­or­ado seat he lost in 2012 at the con­fer­ence.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll shows a 47 per­cent plur­al­ity of Amer­ic­ans agree­ing with the state­ment: “Im­mig­ra­tion helps this coun­try more than it hurts it” — tied for its highest level in a dec­ade, with 42 per­cent dis­agree­ing. By con­trast, from 2005 to 2010, the poll re­gistered a ma­jor­ity of voters ex­press­ing anti-im­mig­ra­tion sen­ti­ment sev­er­al times. Among Re­pub­lic­ans, however, 59 per­cent cur­rently be­lieve im­mig­ra­tion hurts the coun­try more, while just 28 per­cent be­lieve it helps.

In Col­or­ado, where His­pan­ics make up one-fifth of the pop­u­la­tion, Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates are caught between ca­ter­ing to their base while main­tain­ing broad ap­peal in the gen­er­al elec­tion. In 2013, Demo­crat­ic Gov. John Hick­en­loop­er signed le­gis­la­tion al­low­ing il­leg­al im­mig­rants to re­ceive in-state tu­ition at Col­or­ado col­leges, but his Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents haven’t brought that up in the cam­paign. Sen. Mark Ud­all, locked in a tight reelec­tion cam­paign, has been cri­ti­ciz­ing Rep. Cory Gard­ner for not sup­port­ing a path­way to cit­izen­ship for il­leg­al im­mig­rants. Gard­ner, for his part, has sup­por­ted cit­izen­ship for il­leg­al im­mig­rants who served in the mil­it­ary but op­posed the com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form ef­fort in Con­gress last year. Rep. Mike Coff­man, whose sub­urb­an Den­ver dis­trict was re­drawn in 2011 to be more di­verse and polit­ic­ally com­pet­it­ive, has be­come a born-again cham­pi­on for im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

“The party has got­ten in­to its head, in­clud­ing Tan­credo, that they have got to have a strategy on His­pan­ics and at the mo­ment, it’s do noth­ing wrong. Don’t in­flame it,” said Den­ver-based in­de­pend­ent poll­ster Floyd Ciruli. “The do-no-harm philo­sophy has shaped this race, and it’s hurt Tan­credo.”

Beau­prez, who has taken the lead over Tan­credo in his cam­paign’s polling, said he sup­ports grant­ing leg­al status to il­leg­al im­mig­rants who go through a back­ground check and are look­ing for work, but he op­poses a path to cit­izen­ship for those here il­leg­ally. In a speech in Den­ver on Tues­day out­lining his policy agenda, he didn’t men­tion im­mig­ra­tion at all but brought up na­tion­al is­sues such as Obama­care, the VA scan­dal, fed­er­al en­ergy reg­u­la­tions, Com­mon Core, and fed­er­al lands policy.

“It’s an is­sue, but the eco­nomy and tramp­ling of con­sti­tu­tion­al rights way, way out­dis­tances everything else,” Beau­prez told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “It’s an is­sue with­in some seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion, but I don’t think it’s a big is­sue for more than a hand­ful of people in the state,”

But even if im­mig­ra­tion policy hasn’t been dis­cussed much in the gubernat­ori­al primary, Tan­credo’s long his­tory of overzeal­ous rhet­or­ic on the sub­ject is dom­in­at­ing the polit­ic­al strategy in the race. For Demo­crats, the is­sue is so tox­ic for Tan­credo that an out­side group fun­ded by the Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation spent $363,000 on an ad pro­mot­ing him as the most con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ate to subtly boost his cam­paign. “We wouldn’t have to spend a penny in Col­or­ado if Tan­credo’s the nom­in­ee,” said one seni­or Demo­crat­ic strategist in­volved in the race. (The ad may have back­fired: Tan­credo said he thought the ads be­nefited Beau­prez, with GOP voters re­cog­niz­ing that Demo­crats viewed Beau­prez as the more elect­able can­did­ate and were try­ing to meddle in the primary.)

Re­pub­lic­ans openly fear that Tan­credo could cost the party more than just his own race. With Hick­en­loop­er’s ap­prov­al rat­ing im­prov­ing, Re­pub­lic­an strategists are more op­tim­ist­ic about win­ning the Sen­ate race between Ud­all and Gard­ner, and are hop­ing to re­take con­trol of the state Sen­ate, where Demo­crats hold a one-seat edge.

Des­pite the wor­ries, Tan­credo isn’t act­ing like he’s a ser­i­ous con­tender. At the Pro­tein Pro­du­cers Sum­mit, he didn’t look like a gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate, wear­ing an un­buttoned shirt and kha­kis, wan­der­ing the halls un­re­cog­nized un­til ap­proached by this re­port­er. Des­pite hold­ing an early lead, he hasn’t banked enough money to air any tele­vi­sion ad­vert­ise­ments, re­ly­ing in­stead on his name iden­ti­fic­a­tion and con­nec­tion with his loy­al sup­port­ers in­stead. His sup­port for last year’s ref­er­en­dum leg­al­iz­ing marijuana ali­en­ated many so­cial con­ser­vat­ives and promp­ted a scath­ing ra­dio ad from chal­lenger Mike Kopp ac­cus­ing Tan­credo of sup­port­ing leg­al­iz­a­tion of all drugs. In­deed, he’s ac­ted more like a grass­roots act­iv­ist in the mold of Dave Brat than a brand-name con­gress­man and former pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate. Tan­credo said he hardly iden­ti­fies with the Re­pub­lic­an Party any­more, call­ing him­self “more con­ser­vat­ive than Re­pub­lic­an, and more com­mit­ted to the Con­sti­tu­tion than any polit­ic­al party.”

“He wanted to coast through the race and he did up un­til the end,” said Cir­culi. “After Can­tor lost, he went to every tea-party event he could find giv­ing a speech about how this was a chance to take on the es­tab­lish­ment. But he nev­er men­tioned im­mig­ra­tion.”

By con­trast, Beau­prez is emer­ging as the fa­vor­ite to win the nom­in­a­tion, in what would be an­oth­er vic­tory for the GOP es­tab­lish­ment’s ef­fort to push favored can­did­ates through crowded primar­ies. Party lead­ers en­cour­aged Beau­prez to enter the race out of con­cern the oth­er can­did­ates — Tan­credo, Sec­ret­ary of State Scott Gessler, and former state Sen. Mike Kopp — wouldn’t be able to run pro­fes­sion­al cam­paigns cap­able of de­feat­ing Hick­en­loop­er. He entered the race just weeks be­fore the fil­ing dead­line, mak­ing the an­nounce­ment from Wash­ing­ton, where he was pitch­ing Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee of­fi­cials to hold their 2016 con­ven­tion in Den­ver. The 65-year-old Beau­prez is well liked by party of­fi­cials from his time as a con­gress­man, chair­man of the Col­or­ado Re­pub­lic­an Party, and donor to Rom­ney’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, but he  faces skep­ti­cism from his last run for gov­ernor, when he lost by 17 points in a rough polit­ic­al year for Re­pub­lic­ans (2006).

Beau­prez is viewed fa­vor­ably for his abil­ity to self-fin­ance a cam­paign, an im­port­ant as­set in a state with re­strict­ive cam­paign fin­ance laws. But he’s struggled to gen­er­ate much ex­cite­ment for his cam­paign — only pulling ahead of Tan­credo in the last week, ac­cord­ing to his in­tern­als — and strug­gling to fun­draise on his own. At a Tues­day morn­ing press con­fer­ence to an­nounce policy pro­pos­als, only his fam­ily, staff, and sev­er­al mem­bers of the press were in at­tend­ance.

Beau­prez said he fol­lowed the Vir­gin­ia primary res­ults closely and sug­ges­ted that Can­tor’s po­s­i­tion in lead­er­ship made it dif­fi­cult for him to rep­res­ent his con­stitu­ents back home. He re­called how dif­fi­cult it was to run for gov­ernor in his last gubernat­ori­al cam­paign, when he still was serving in Con­gress. But he soun­ded a be­mused note that he was viewed as the es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ate, giv­en that his chal­lengers have held elect­ive of­fice longer than him.

“I’m fas­cin­ated by this whole es­tab­lish­ment thing. Scott Gessler’s been in of­fice, Mike Kopp was a state le­gis­lat­ive lead­er. I’ve been in of­fice a grand total of four years. Tan­credo’s been in of­fice forever. And some­how, I’m this es­tab­lish­ment guy?” Beau­prez said. “Some people on Cap­it­ol Hill drink the Kool-Aid and it cor­rupts them. Oth­er people serve there, come home and rep­res­ent their con­stitu­ents. I think I’m one of those.”

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