PHOENIX — One candidate called for sending National Guard troops and to build fences on the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas to stem the tide of immigrants, and forwarding the bill to President Barack Obama.
Another candidate suggested deploying satellites to control the border. Still another participated in a demonstration in which protesters hoped to block a rumored busload of child immigrants to a small Arizona town.
The Republican race for Arizona governor, which began quietly with a focus on Medicaid, Common Core education standards and ways to boost the state’s economy, has taken an abrupt turn toward a familiar topic: immigration.
While the issue has flared up as a campaign issue in a few spots around the country since the influx of immigrants, nowhere has it been more pronounced than in Arizona because it came just as the GOP gubernatorial primary was heating up.
It’s given Republicans endless amounts of rhetoric as they court strident primary voters that are so crucial to their success. One candidate is running an ad that shows a Mexican flag superimposed over Arizona.
Never mind the fact that the flow of children into the U.S. has slowed down dramatically. About 200 Central American immigrant kids settled in Arizona, and a Nogales facility that was housing them has essentially shut down.
“The Republican primary voter (in Arizona) is a very unique animal and it is a microcosm of a caricature and it is the most sort of rabid, anti-immigration, hard-right conservative,” said Mike O’Neil, who has been doing polling in the state for 35 years.
“I think saner heads will prevail, but not necessarily right away and not necessarily in the Republican primary,” O’Neil said.
Immigration has long factored into Arizona politics.
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who cannot run again because of term limits, made fighting the federal government over its immigration enforcement failures a cornerstone of her tenure.
Brewer signed the state’s tough immigration crackdown law, re-igniting the immigration debate across the country.
Since then, the issue has gradually faded. The architect of the law was ousted from the state Senate in a recall. The business community recoiled. And the U.S. Supreme Court overturned key provisions.
The return of immigration in the governor’s debate is a replay of sorts from the last gubernatorial race when Brewer signed SB1070. The signing boosted her profile among Republicans and helped her win.
The six candidates vying to replace her in the Aug. 26 GOP primary quickly jumped on the issue.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett proposed the creation of a “strike force” of national guardsmen, state and local law enforcement officers to interdict cartel and gang members.
Former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas has based his entire campaign on immigration. His first TV ad touted his background fighting illegal immigration and said he needs to be elected “before it’s too late” to stem an invasion from Mexico.
Former Cold Stone Creamery CEO and current state Treasurer Doug Ducey wants to deploy satellites, and one-time Internet company executive Christine Jones frequently touts her idea of building a fence and sending in the National Guard.
Former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith slammed Ducey and Jones for pandering to voters with unrealistic promises. He touts his own record of having police in his city enforce immigration laws and apprehend migrants who don’t have authorization to be in the country.
Smith is calling for congressional action to deport adults recently arrived from Central America and for expedited hearings to return tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors.
No matter their positions, the issue is clearly resonating.
An Associated Press-GfK poll this week found that two-thirds of Americans say illegal immigration is a serious problem, up 14 points since May and on par with concern about the issue in May 2010 — just around the time Arizona passed its immigration law.
It’s not clear how long it will remain an issue, however.
The winner will have to appeal to a more moderate base in the general election against Democrat Fred DuVal, a former Clinton administration official who was a member of the governing board for the state’s universities.
Chip Lewis is among the many undecided Republican voters who are still weighing the various candidates in the race. He has grown tired of the barrage of TV ads and immigration rhetoric that he describes as “pandering to the uneducated public.”
“They say these things they’ll do about the border, but don’t say why they’ll make a good governor,” the 55-year-old wildlife biologist said. “It’s disappointing that that’s the lot we have to choose from.”
Associated Press writer Emaun Kashfi contributed to this report.
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