As observers evaluate the impact of SB 1070 in the year since it was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer, there is one arena in which little analysis is needed: It was a blockbuster bill that benefited the immediate political fortunes of the Republican Party.
But will illegal immigration continue to be a winning political issue for the GOP, or is the party headed for the kind of long-term backlash experienced by California Republicans who sought to deny social services to illegal immigrants with Proposition 187 in 1994 — especially with the Latino population in Arizona and the U.S. growing even faster than was believed?
“The issue kind of exploded on the scene last year,” said Jim Haynes, president of Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center, a marketing and public-opinion research firm. “My guess is that the impact has probably reached a high point and will stay there. The public memory can be short, and typically by the next election, the public has moved on to the next issue.”
Republicans perhaps won’t not mind if the level of illegal immigration fervor stays put. Less than six months after Brewer signed the immigration law, a state that some analysts suggested was turning purple returned to solid red.
On election day 2010, Republicans swept all six statewide offices for the first time in 16 years and tightened their grip on the state Legislature. A 5-3 Congressional delegation in favor of Democrats flipped to 5-3 for the GOP. “When it came down to state politics, the bill had a big impact on getting out the vote,” said Tom Morrissey, Arizona Republican Party chairman. “It is such a passionate issue and a very big dynamic in our turnout.”
The GOP mileage may vary in future elections, given a Latino population that is starting to throw weight around at the polls. That demographic preferred Democrats over Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in 2010 and played decisive roles in Senate races in California, Nevada, Colorado and Washington, likely costing the GOP control of the chamber.
According to 2010 Census figures, there are about 50.5 million Latinos in the U.S. — 16.3 percent of the population, and a growth of 43 percent during the last decade. The demographic accounted for about half of the population growth in Arizona, helping the state earn a ninth U.S. House seat.
Last year’s election results are a “false sense of security” for the Arizona GOP, said DeeDee Blase, founder of Somos Republicans, a Scottsdale-based advocacy group.
“Democrats are in a good position to work on 400,000 eligible, unregistered Latino voters in this state,” Blase said. “I believe we will turn back purple, and hopefully, we can stop it at that. I hope it doesn’t go completely blue.”
Rodolfo Espino, assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University, said that while Latinos — a demographic that is typically entrepreneurial, faith-based and socially conservative — have been hostile to the GOP, they have not embraced the Democrats.
He cited May 2010 polling in which a plurality — 44.2 percent — of Arizona Hispanic voters indicated that they would vote against President Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2012 if immigration reform and the DREAM Act, a bill that provides certain alien students a path to citizenship, did not pass by then.
“The support for Democrats is not overwhelming in its strength,” Espino said. “There’s an opportunity for both parties, but they have to tap it. Republicans can peel back the losses (among Latinos) that they suffered in 2010, but given the candidates that they have in a lot of places, I don’t see that happening.”
A big part of the Democrats’ future success among Latino voters in Arizona depends on outreach. And while labor and progressive organizations have been vital to such efforts in California, Nevada and Colorado, no such infrastructure exists in Arizona.
“Right now, the party is in a rebuilding stage, coming off November,” said Jennifer Johnson, spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Party. “So we are in a period of ramping up, where we have to do a lot of fundraising and putting the word out, to build a foundation of building turnout, both among Hispanic voters and all voters, for 2012.”
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