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GOP Frets on Immigration

Republicans might be headed for a fight over illegal immigration; but even if such a political car wreck comes to fruition, it is unlikely to cost them Congressional seats in next year’s midterm elections, GOP consultants and party leaders say.

“I think Democrats will find it hard to get traction on this issue because it goes to law enforcement and security, and that is not traditionally a level playing field for them,” said Republican consultant Doug McAuliffe.

Illegal immigration could cause Republicans problems in the 2008 presidential race. But it seems the worst that could happen in 2006 is a GOP incumbent facing a primary challenge from the right — and even that should be rare.

Even so, the issue could influence the outcome of Republican primaries for open House and Senate seats next year.

While Republicans may have nothing to fear from Democrats politically on illegal immigration, GOP officials and operatives recognize it as a “top-three” issue that must be addressed satisfactorily to prevent a backlash of Republican and like-minded voters.

If anything, elected Republicans may be more sensitive to the political pitfalls of immigration than GOP strategists.

Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, declined to comment at a news conference Friday on what effect the issue might have on GOP candidates next year, telling reporters he doesn’t address hypotheticals.

“I think there’s a sense that Republicans would like to work on immigration and border security,” Reynolds said. “Stay tuned.”

Where illegal immigration will come into play is in Republican primaries, and any candidate not strong enough on the issue will probably suffer.

In the open primary last week to replace former Rep. and now-Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox (R) in California’s 48th district, Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minuteman Project, which has stationed sentries along the U.S.-Mexico border, garnered 14.4 percent of the vote. It was a strong enough showing to help force the frontrunner, state Sen. John Campbell (R), into a Dec. 6 runoff.

As the only candidate running under the American Independent Party banner, Gilchrist is automatically placed in the runoff. Ironically, he has promised Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) he will vote with the Republican caucus in the unlikely event he beats Campbell, who won 46 percent of the primary vote.

In Idaho, the wild card of six candidates running in the 1st district Republican primary to replace Rep. Butch Otter (R) is Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez (R), whose candidacy is based on strengthening illegal immigration enforcement — even though he is of Hispanic origin.

“Illegal immigration scores high in every survey I have seen over the last year as a problem that people want addressed; that is especially true among Republican primary voters,” said one Republican consultant based in the Southwest. “So yeah, this could be an issue in virtually any race.”

Republican strategists say some issues could rank higher than illegal immigration in various races, with the caveat that it could automatically rocket to the top of voters’ concerns and become a driving force in an election if one candidate is seen as weak on the issue.

Tim Clark, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant handling one of the GOP primary candidates running for the seat being left open by retiring Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), said illegal immigration will obviously be a big issue in that race, as California’s 50th district is located in northern San Diego County, not far from the Mexican border.

But he said where it ranks in the top three could depend on where gas prices are and the state of events in Iraq. Clark, who is working for state Assemblyman Mark Wyland (R), doesn’t expect GOP candidates to be weak on immigration in this race or nationally.

“I don’t think you’re going to find a whole lot of Congressional candidates waver on a tough illegal immigration line; I just don’t see it,” Clark said.

One potential negative to GOP candidates taking a hard line on illegal immigration is the damage it might do to the success Republicans have had lately in securing the support of Latino voters.

President Bush last year received about 40 percent of the Latino vote, and the Republican National Committee on Friday launched a Spanish-language Web site, www.gop.com/espanol, designed to further the party’s outreach with this fast growing segment of the electorate.

RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman said in a recent interview that the party is looking at how to translate the president’s success with Latinos last year into votes in key Senate and House races in 2006.

GOP officials are hoping addressing difficult issues, such as illegal immigration, will ultimately pay dividends and not disrupt the progress they have made with the Latino community.

“Republicans’ willingness to engage the American public on tough issues by offering ideas and solutions can only help broaden our appeal and ultimately grow our party,” said RNC Press Secretary Tracey Schmitt.

A Latino backlash is less likely than in the past, Republican strategists say, because after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, border enforcement and keeping track of immigrants, legal or illegal, are now bonafide national security issues.

The debate over illegal immigration is now more likely to revolve around keeping Americans safe and preventing terrorist attacks, rather than what undocumented immigrants might cost taxpayers.

“If [the issue] is presented wrongly it could” cost Republicans Latino votes, Clark said. “But in large part 9/11 has changed the debate to where we’re really talking about national security.”

Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said immigration was the No. 1 issue that arose in a trip he took to 10 House districts around the country in August.

In an interview given a few days before becoming Majority Leader, Blunt downplayed reports of Republican infighting on the issue, saying his caucus is united on the need to address the issue.

“I think the thing that unites everybody is that nobody is satisfied with the current situation,” he said.