It was supposed to be the race that allowed Arizona’s Republican party to move beyond the anti-immigrant politics that made the state a national laughing stock.
Term limits prevented Jan Brewer from running for reelection as governor. And having witnessed voters recall SB 1070 architect Russell Pearce three years ago, the hope was that Republicans would reverse course on immigration, focus on economic growth, and begin the long and difficult path of reaching out to Hispanics.
That plan has evaporated in the Arizona summer. The Republican primary for governor has become a vicious contest between candidates running to the right on immigration.
As the August 26 primary approaches, the candidates have rolled out their plans for border security with little concern for how absurd their positions are. Andrew Thomas, a disbarred former Maricopa County attorney, has bolstered his once-fringe candidacy by promising a “Patton Line” that would cut through the middle of the state in order to secure the border. This didn’t get him laughed off stage; it sparked talk that he could come from behind to win the primary.
State Treasurer Doug Ducey, a top contender who started out focused on economic issues, has touted the endorsement of Sheriff Joe Arpaio as validation of his anti-immigrant credentials. Christine Jones, a former executive at GoDaddy, has used her endorsement from Sheriff Paul Babeu, another immigration hawk, to talk up her own border security plan.
Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, considered a moderate on immigration, has also shifted to the right, using hard-line immigration rhetoric to raise money in an effort to compete with Ducey and Jones in the frontrunner pack of candidates.
This has left Sen. John McCain, who has voiced a more pragmatic view on immigration, to lament that these solutions are not affordable and are not serious attempts to engage the issue.
Republican primaries force candidates to the right on immigration, that's nothing new. Here's one textbook example.
In 2005, Congressman Jeff Flake bragged how his family employed undocumented immigrants on his ranch in Snowflake; "They would go back for birthdays, for Christmas, for holidays, because they could always come back across the border easily." He advocated for an immigration policy that emphasized guest-worker programs. In 2013, he helped craft a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to pursue citizenship. But just one year before he worked on that bill, Flake decided that to win his Senate primary, he had to talk like a hard liner in the face of a challenge from a self-funded Republican candidate.
The difference is this was the year that was supposed to change. Instead, the rancorous of the Republican primary on immigration could help to boost the chances of Democrat Fred DuVal. In a red state, a DuVal remains an uphill battle. But it is not as implausible as it may have seemed a few months ago.
Arizona serves as a preview of the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Republican consultants will try to say that Hispanics are a diverse voting group and they care about economic issues. “They are concerned about the same issues as other Americans: jobs and turning around the economy,” Flake’s spokesman said in 2012. But that is an argument that is coming from a losing team.
So long as Republicans are willing to engage in the sport of immigrant-bashing to gin up support during a primary, they will be unable to compete for Hispanic voters. The party’s officials may trumpet claims about doing Hispanic outreach for the press, but those efforts are meaningless when primaries are being won through the hard-line politics on immigration.
In the next few months, we will be able to see whether the rush to the right on immigration helped to tip the Arizona gubernatorial race for the Democrat DuVal. Either way, the Republicans' opportunity to conduct outreach to the state’s growing Hispanic population will be lost and the expanding Latino electorate will continue to be solidly Democratic. With this strategy, it's only a matter of time before Arizona turns blue.
Whatever the outcome in Arizona, we have a clear preview of what the presidential race will look like in 2016. Whichever candidate emerges from the race as the GOP nominee will have staked out a hard-line position on immigration that makes them anathema to Hispanic voters. What it takes to win the primary will prevent the candidate from winning the presidency.
Sam Kleiner is a fellow at the Yale Law Information Society Project.