In S.C. primary, support for immigration law could be a delicate choice

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Of the states which have passed immigration laws modeled after Arizona’s S.B. 1070, South Carolina is the most important in the GOP presidential primary season. The “first in the South” primary is considered by many observers to be the decisive testing ground for the Republican Party presidential candidates, as it has chosen the winning candidate in every election since 1980.

“Right now the South Carolina law is in court,” says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University and a GOP consultant. He’s referring to Arizona v. United States, the case over the preliminary injunction of certain provisions of Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which legal scholars believe will determine the fate of all of the Arizona-style laws, including South Carolina’s.

“I suspect that the outcome of the Court decision will dictate the rhetoric in the election,” says Woodard. “However, I have poll data that shows that the Arizona law is very popular among GOP base voters, somewhere in the 70s is the usual support number.”

Because of the South Carolina primary’s importance, GOP candidates in the primary could be forced to embrace South Carolina’s new law, but may come to regret it in the general election. Gloria Montaño Green, from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), says that Arizona-style laws are causing increased Latino politico mobilization. She says Latinos are going to be watching “those who pass, and those who stand up to fight against these [Arizona-style] laws.”

“The Latino electorate is increasing. It increased in 2004 and 2008, and we believe it’s going to continue to increase in 2012 and 2016,” says Montaño Green. And although the majority of Latinos have consistently supported Democrats, a Republican still needs to have above a certain threshold of Latino support to win the White House — generally thought to be above 40 percent.

Unfortunately for candidates looking to avoid the immigration issue in South Carolina, many prominent GOP leaders who have significant influence over who wins the primary have made passing immigration enforcement laws their signature issues. Most importantly, tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint: “An endorsement by Lindsey Graham or Nikki Haley pales in comparison to good words from DeMint,” says Woodard (who co-authored a book with DeMint).

And although DeMint has become a conservative hero for his opposition to tax increases in the Senate, his first moment of national glory was helping to torpedo bipartisan efforts at passing comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.

There’s also South Carolina’s four Republican freshman U.S. House members, all staunch conservatives and self-identified tea party members: Representatives Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney and Tim Scott. These four “have worked in unison on legislation, and their endorsement in the primary might be very significant,” says Woodard.

All four freshmen expressed very strong support for an Arizona-style law before it was passed in South Carolina. Three — Duncan, Mulvaney and Scott — cosponsored a similar bill to what was eventually passed while they served in the state Legislature in 2010.

As for the presidential candidates themselves, in general, they can be divided in two groups when it comes to Arizona-style laws. Those considered the more tea party-friendly candidates have fully embraced “papers, please” laws and called for even stronger laws. The more “establishment” candidates have expressed support for the enforcement-only states (and condemned the federal government for suing Arizona), but qualified their statements by saying that the federal government, by failing to pass immigration reform, has forced the states to act; this allows these candidates to avoid talking about the more controversial provisions in the laws.

Mitt Romney made immigration enforcement a prime issue in the 2007-2008 primary, criticizing Sen. John McCain for his moderation and cooperation with Sen. Ted Kennedy on path-to-citizenship legislation. He made such an impression on immigration conservatives that Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio himself not only endorsed Romney but was considered an unofficial chairman of his Arizona campaign. Romney also received DeMint’s endorsement in 2008, but nevertheless placed fourth in the final vote tally.

However, Romney has also sounded notes of caution on the implementation of Arizona’s law, specifically referring to the possibility that it might lead to racial discrimination.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has not held back in her support for Arizona-style laws in the past. She also told Bill O’Reilly in 2008 that law enforcement should be checking legal immigration status, calling the issue one of “anarchy versus the rule of law.”

Tim Pawlenty has tried to highlight his conservative credentials on the immigration issue. In his final year as governor of Minnesota, he issued two executive orders, one increasing cooperation between Minnesota law enforcement and federal immigration officials, and the other mandating the use of E-Verify, the federal I.D. verification system, for public employees and contractors (both orders expired once Pawlenty’s successor Mark Dayton took over as governor). During the New Hampshire debate on June 13, Pawlenty endorsed Arizona-style laws if the “federal government won’t do its job.”

He’s also received an early endorsement from Rep. Joe Wilson, the only South Carolina non-freshman in the House of Representatives, who became a hero to tea party conservatives when he yelled “You Lie!” at President Obama during a joint address to Congress in 2009. The comment Wilson objected to was Obama’s assertion that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would not provide health insurance to undocumented immigrants.

Of the mainstream candidates, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has the least credibility on immigration to conservatives, as he was a supporter of a path to citizenship at one point. Now he says he wants border security first.

Herman Cain has been particularly vocal in his support of stringent immigration enforcement laws, telling Alabama Republicans (who have passed the most expansive version of the “papers, please” laws) that “I wouldn’t have sued Arizona, I would have given them a medal.”

Of the two libertarians, Texas Rep. Ron Paul has praised the Arizona law’s intent but raised questions about its potential infringement of civil liberties, while former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson opposes it entirely.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has yet to announce his candidacy but is considered a strong contender to fill the satisfaction gap many Republican voters are experiencing with the current candidates, has the most immediate record on Arizona-style legislation. As The Texas Independent has reported, Perry failed twice this year — both in the regular session and in a special session of the Texas Legislature — to pass a bill that would prohibit municipalities from stopping police from checking immigration status, a so called “sanctuary cities” ban.

Perry has often courted Latinos, like his predecessor George W. Bush, and supported a guestworker program for Texas during his 2007 inaugural address. But he received a tepid reaction when he addressed the Hispanic leaders in NALEO after pushing for the “sanctuary cities” ban.

NALEO’s reaction to Perry is a preview to the kind of reaction that the final GOP presidential candidate is expected to face during the general election if they are perceived as anti-Hispanic. But South Carolina’s law — and the state’s outsized importance in the GOP primary season — could force the candidates to cement positions on enforcement-only laws that they may come to regret when it comes time to run against Obama in 2012.

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