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Immigration Paramount in Tight Arizona Governor Race

Immigration Paramount in Tight Arizona Governor Race

By Adam O'Neal - August 8, 2014

As the Republican gubernatorial primary in Arizona enters its final weeks, immigration -- particularly, the ongoing border crisis -- has become the defining issue of the campaign. And while state governments can do relatively little to address the problem, the candidates’ handling of the subject could very well decide the still wide-open contest.

“It’s always been a latent issue in the Republican primary,” according to Rodolfo Espino, a political science professor at Arizona State University. “But the national drumbeat about immigration and the flows of children from Central America got the candidates talking about it even more than they have in the past.”

Several candidates and campaign staffers told RCP that immigration is now “always” the first topic that voters bring up while they’re on the trail -- and it’s often the second and third topics too. And with immigration on voters’ minds, the candidates have renewed their pitches for why they best can handle the problem.

While the field has narrowed from earlier this year, the election’s outcome remains far from certain. Arizona Treasurer Doug Ducey and former internet executive Christine Jones (pictured shaking hands), along with former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, have entered the final weeks ahead of the Aug. 26 election as leading contenders.

Polling in the race is sparse. Ducey and Jones ran neck and neck for most of July, but a recent survey showed Smith gaining ground. Gov. Jan Brewer’s endorsement has also bolstered Smith’s chances. (Ducey received backing from Sarah Palin on Wednesday, the latest in a slew of endorsements from national conservatives.) In a close race like this, immigration could make all the difference.

The issue has always held outsize influence in the border-state’s politics, and Arizona politicians typically benefit from taking broad, hard-line stances on federal immigration policy. (Brewer, a moderate on many other issues such as Common Core and Medicaid expansion, rose to national fame over her support for tough -- and highly controversial -- immigration legislation in the Republican-leaning state.)

Now, however, a two-tiered debate is taking place: First, candidates must answer the immediate question of how they would help handle the border crisis (if they even can). And their opinions on national immigration reform, which have been part of the campaign for months, are receiving new attention. Often, the two points conflate.

The GOP contenders, aware of the primary electorate’s enforcement-first mentality, have focused on increasing border security.

Ducey told RCP he takes an “all of the above” approach -- including new fencing, new technology, partnering with local law enforcement, directing more spending to the border, reforming relevant bureaucracies -- to stemming the flow of illegal immigration.

He argued that his business experience running Cold Stone Creamery uniquely prepared him for the challenges along Arizona’s border with Mexico. “You don’t build 1,440 ice cream stores without an idea of where you’re going and how to get it done. That’s why I’m running on a very specific agenda.”

However, Ducey added that “this is a national security issue. Our federal government must deal with it.”

Jones’ three-point plan calls for deploying National Guard troops along the border (a la Texas Gov. Rick Perry), investing in tracking technology, and building out the fence “in strategic locations.”

“Not that we need to have the Great Wall of Mexico,” she continued “but we need to finish the fence in locations that are highly known trafficking routes.”

Espino, who specializes in immigration and Latino politics, met with Jones earlier this year to discuss related policy issues. He told RCP that “of all the candidates out there, there’s not one person in the GOP field that could be further to the right on the issue of immigration than her.”

“Is it the most conservative? Am I furthest right?” asked Jones during an interview with RCP. “I don’t know. I just know that I’m an unapologetic conservative and I think if you break the law you should have a consequence.” (Jones opposes the federal government granting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and she agrees with Ducey’s national security argument.)

Smith, who supports a pathway to citizenship, has taken a decidedly less confrontational approach.

“If you look at every other candidate except for me, they’re throwing out wild plans, wild ideas, that are neither within the legal ability of the governor to do or the fiscal ability of the state to do,” asserted Smith. “You can throw red meat all you want, but just because it’s the number one issue for voters doesn’t mean you can throw out ideas that can’t be implemented.”

Fred DuVal, a former Clinton administration official and the presumptive Democratic nominee, said in a statement, “As governor, I will lead a strong law enforcement effort to crack down on drug and human smuggling cartels.”

He also reiterated his support for the Senate “Gang of 8” immigration bill, which Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake -- both Republicans -- backed last year.

Arizona State University professor Richard Herrera told RCP that the gubernatorial immigration debate has become muddled as voters conflate the border crisis with the federal government’s wider failures on immigration.

The border crisis “is a separate issue, because we’re not talking about Mexican immigrants crossing the border. We’re talking about Central American ones. It’s a very different story. They’re not crossing [the Arizona] border. They’re crossing another border and being put here.

“The reason why the two get conflated is because [the border crisis] is symptomatic of the president’s failure to deal adequately with immigration in the minds of Republican voters,” he added. “It’s all short term. ‘Do something now.’”

And, according to Espino, this hasn’t weakened the political potency of taking a tough stance against illegal immigration -- now or in the general election.

“It’s Arizona versus Washington, D.C. And I think that’s something that resonates a lot with the GOP base,” he explained. “It’s something that was born in the American West. … You figure it out for yourself.”

This article was updated at 11:08 a.m. Aug. 8.

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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