Congress readies for immigration showdown
In the Northeast, the issue again plays differently depending on the district. In the perennially close Philadelphia suburbs, neither Rep. Jim Gerlach, a moderate Republican, nor Lois Murphy, his challenger, has emphasized immigration. But in Connecticut, Rep. Chris Shays, another moderate Republican, recently recanted his longstanding support for legalization. "I found myself trying to explain why [illegal immigrants] should become citizens, and I couldn't, seeing as they came here illegally," he said. Illegal immigration, he says, is a "pretty significant" issue in his district but that his current view is not "politically correct . . . among a lot of my constituency." Diane Farrell, his opponent, supports a path to citizenship, and has portrayed Shays as a flip-flopper on immigration.
For Senate races, the political significance of immigration also largely depends on the campaign. In Missouri, incumbent Republican Jim Talent wants to make immigration the hot-button issue, sending out E-mails to supporters painting his challenger Claire McCaskill, the state auditor, as supporting amnesty. By contrast, in Ohio, Sen. Mike DeWine's moderate stance on immigration reform is not expected to seriously hurt him, and he isn't highlighting the issue on the campaign trail. Neither is Democratic opponent Rep. Sherrod Brown. "Immigration is a problem, but Ohioans are most concerned about affording their mortgage, having jobs, and making sure their pension is still around after 30 years at a company," says Brown spokeswoman Joanna Kuebler.
In Maryland, the immigration debate has so far played a low profile. Leading Democratic candidates Benjamin Cardin and Kweisi Mfume haven't staked out clear positions. "I don't even know what his position is," says one Cardin aide. "And I don't know what Mfume's position is, either." Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the Republican candidate, supports securing the border before considering a guest-worker program, but he has so far used the immigration debate in Congress as a way to portray himself as an outside-the-beltway candidate rather than as a strategy to attack his opponents.
Although immigration reform may continue to dominate the Capitol Hill discussion in the coming weeks as the House and Senate struggle to narrow the gap between their immigration bills, the issue may prove once again that most, if not all, politics is local.
With Dan Gilgoff, Liz Halloran, Alex Kingsbury, Danielle Knight, Angie C. Marek, and Bret Schulte.