Have Utah Republican voters saved the immigration bill?

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Republican Rep. Chris Cannon was apparently renominated in the Third Congressional District of Utah primary held yesterday.

With all precincts reporting, Cannon leads challenger John Jacob by a 56-to-44 percent margin. Ordinarily, this would be considered a narrow margin for an incumbent in a primary. But the self-financing Jacob spent heavily on a campaign based on the immigration issue. Cannon has backed a guest-worker program as part of a larger immigration package, and he has supported in-state tuition at state colleges and universities for children of illegal immigrants. Jacob opposed the former as "amnesty" and the latter as an outrage. It is conventional wisdom in many quarters that Republican voters overwhelmingly favor a border-security-only approach to immigration. Cannon's victory casts some doubt on that.

Yes, there were extenuating factors; there usually are in elections. Last week, Jacob imprudently told the Salt Lake Tribune that he thought Satan was responsible for recent business reverses that prevented him from putting as much of his own money into his campaign as he had intended. Even in a very religious district—the Utah Third is the home of Brigham Young University and probably has the highest percentage of Mormons of any congressional district in the United States—that probably made him sound a little wacky. Cannon's record on issues other than immigration is impeccably conservative—a plus in a district that voted 77 percent to 20 percent for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004. Still, Cannon's victory stands for the proposition that support for a comprehensive immigration bill is not political death in a Republican primary, even in a very conservative district that has been affected by immigration (in 2000, 10 percent of its residents were Hispanic; presumably the percentage of Hispanics voting in the Republican primary this year was much smaller).

It should be noted that this is not the first time Cannon has been opposed in the primary by an anti-immigration candidate. In 2004, he beat Matt Throckmorton by 58 to 42 percent in a turnout of 47,335. This time, he beat Jacob by 56to 44 percent in a turnout of 57,895. Both challenges had high visibility, though Jacob evidently spent more money. Yet the results look pretty much the same in percentage terms, and the numbers suggest that an increased turnout did not bring out a landslide of anti-immigration voters.

"Racism and xenophobia are not Republican virtues," Cannon repeatedly said.

Interestingly, Cannon did better in rural areas than in suburbs. He won 55 percent of the vote in Utah County, which includes Provo and Brigham Young. He won only 51 percent in the suburban areas of Salt Lake County that are in the district. But he won 67 percent in the five small rural counties in the district.

It was widely thought that if Cannon lost, that would be the end of any immigration bill this year—or at least that the House Republican leadership would refuse to consider anything but the type of border-security-only bill the House passed last December. Cannon's victory, combined with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter's stated willingness to consider a border-security-first approach, leads me to believe that passing an immigration bill is possible.

It would probably have to look more like the House bill than the Senate bill but might include something like the guest-worker program suggested by rancher Helen Krieble and sponsored by House Republican Study Committee Chairman Mike Pence. That's certainly the direction in which Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman is spinning the result: "Tonight's well-deserved victory by Chris Cannon demonstrates that voters prefer real solutions to our nation's important issues like border security."