Political Hay

Changing Immigration Politics in Colorado

Tancredo approaches will kill Republican chances.

By 4.28.14

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Congressman Cory Gardner (R-CO) tells a personal story: “I was visiting a high school in Kit Carson, Colorado when a young woman came up to me asking about in-state tuition for non-citizens. ‘I’m graduating at the top of my high school class, but my parents brought me here illegally when I was five years old and without in-state tuition I can’t afford college,’ she told me.” Gardner’s answer — that for several reasons this really needed to be dealt with as part of broader immigration reform — left him feeling unsatisfied even though it accurately represented his view.

He continues: “Five years later, I went back to Kit Carson and sat down in a little restaurant for a quick bite. And who do you think ended up serving me? The same girl who five years earlier was the valedictorian of her high school.” Gardner’s conclusion — and how could it be otherwise? — is that this cannot be the best outcome for the girl, for her family, or for the State of Colorado.

With the increasing Hispanic population of Colorado (and most other states) and the like-it-or-not fact that compared to Cory Gardner’s high school years the minority population in many public schools has exploded from single-digit percentages to sometimes being the majority of the student body, it is difficult to imagine how Republicans — either personally or politically — can remain stuck on immigration policy positions of years past, positions that seem to ignore both demographic and economic reality.

But as we head into November’s important elections — in which Cory Gardner’s entrance into the Colorado senate race against incumbent Democrat Mark “Whatever Obama Wants” Udall has added this state to the list of possible GOP pickups — the question is political reality.

Last week in Denver, I attended an interesting and perhaps hope-inspiring meeting.

Congressman Gardner sat down with a small group of Republicans to listen to opinions on immigration policy — one of the most divisive issues within the GOP.

The roughly 10 people in the room included representatives of business, of the media (me), prominent former Colorado politicians and party leaders, and — perhaps most interestingly — two evangelical Christian pastors.

For his part, Rep. Gardner’s stated position on immigration is standard Republican fare: Secure the border, no amnesty or welfare benefits for illegals, ensure that employers hire legal workers. Gardner also mentions, publicly and privately, “guest worker” programs that should be at the heart of Republican immigration reform. These ideas routinely get short shrift from the Tom Tancredo — Mitt Romney nexus of closed-minded “just say no” and “self-deportation” Republicans and from Democrats interested in turning as many immigrants, legal or otherwise, into voting citizens.

The message in the room, from people of disparate interests, backgrounds, and political experience, most of whom did not know each other, was nevertheless like a choir singing in unison, with a few repeated choruses of emphasis:

  • Being staunchly anti-immigration and even anti-illegal immigrant, especially in a way that can be spun as “racist” by Democrats — and you know they’ll try — is a recipe for political disaster in Colorado.
  • More broadly, the GOP being perceived (again with the help of Democrats and their “mainstream media” pawns) as the “anti-everyone-but-straight-white-Christian-men” party has the potential to prevent Republicans from winning statewide and national elections for many years to come — as Mitt Romney proved by losing Asian-American voters by one percentage point more than he lost Hispanics. (This is not a new phenomenon; incumbent Republican Congressman J.D. Hayworth of Arizona managed to lose his seat in 2006 — after getting at least 60 percent of the vote in his prior three races — by running an anti-immigration campaign.)
  • Political parties are defined by their candidates, not their party’s platform.
  • There was some debate in the room about citizenship versus legalization (short of citizenship). But there was agreement that the GOP can’t let the most anti-immigrant voices in the party define “amnesty” as anything that doesn’t mean loading 10 million people into vans and driving them out of the country.
  • Democrats, including our two senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, have no interest in actually dealing with the question; they, like their party leaders, want a wedge issue more than they want a solution.
  • And, with emphasis from the pastors: Public opinion is changing with remarkable speed on immigration issues; evangelical churches (both the leaders and the congregations) are turning from opponents of immigration reform (as the issue is broadly discussed in non-political circles) into supporters.

The recent history of the Colorado GOP is littered with flawed candidates who lose important and winnable elections to uninspiring, unaccomplished Democrats. While last year’s Democratic overreach in restricting Second Amendment rights resulted in something of a GOP awakening (and the recall of two state senators, who were replaced by Republicans), Colorado’s Republican Party remains a substantially less effective and less credible political force than it should be.

Cory Gardner, however, is the most credible Republican candidate for major office that this state has seen in years. He has a real chance to knock off a senator who functions as one of Congress’s most reliable rubber stamps for the Obama administration.

But if Gardner were to take a position that is as aggressively anti-immigration as many of the loudest voices on the right — such as Ann Coulter and the Center for Immigration Studies — urge Republicans to take, he would turn out thousands of independent and young voters who are otherwise likely to stay home on Election Day — and they’ll vote for other Democrats while they’re at it. Gardner would not only lose his race but cause other Republican losses at the same time, while pounding one of the final nails in the coffin of the GOP in Colorado.

After all, if a candidate as strong as Cory Gardner, in a year with an unusually large Republican tailwind, against an incumbent as weak as Mark Udall, still manages to lose (especially if somehow the race isn’t close), what hope would there be to attract future good candidates for political office in Colorado and what motivation would independent voters, or even Republicans, have to vote for such a feckless party? Nobody wants to support a loser, even “our” loser.

Fortunately, Gardner shows no signs of making that error. He’s smart, detail-oriented, and focused on solutions rather than rhetoric. He seemed truly to be listening to those who took the time out of our workdays to share our opinions with him.

A converse argument applies to the candidacy of former Congressman Tom Tancredo who is seeking to unseat Governor John Hickenlooper — a man who campaigned as a moderate but who has governed as a tool of radical environmentalists and Michael Bloomberg. While polling just below 50 percent, “Hick” remains fairly popular, especially among those who pay little attention to politics.

Gardner himself never mentioned or referenced Tancredo, but he certainly heard strong opinions about him from many of us.

Tancredo’s signature issue is immigration; the public perception of him is defined by a congressional career of hardline anti-immigration rhetoric including his sponsorship of the “Mass Immigration Reduction Act of 2003,” which would have massively curtailed legal immigration into the United States in a remarkable attempt at economic harakiri.

As if his extreme views on immigration aren’t enough of a turn-off in this increasingly independent state, Tom was recently endorsed by Ted “sub-human mongrel” Nugent — a great supporter of gun rights and an interesting character, but not helpful to be associated with in a general election in a moderate state.

I appreciate Tom Tancredo’s occasional libertarian instincts, and his more-frequent-than-most-politicians references to the Constitution. I endorsed Tancredo in his 2010 third-party run for governor in a very messy situation with no viable Republican candidate.

But if he is the eventual Republican nominee for the governor’s race in 2014, he will poison the entire ticket for the GOP. In the upcoming four-way primary (if none of the other candidates drops out), with Tancredo having a certain hard-core base of support, a Tancredo nomination seems a 50/50 proposition.

The most recent poll shows Tancredo doing marginally better than the other GOP hopefuls, but still well behind Gov. Hickenlooper in large part because of Hick’s huge lead among women. Tancredo’s apparent support reflects his broader name recognition compared to the rest of the GOP field, but even with that advantage he barely does better than the others in a matchup with the incumbent. In other words, he has a hard-core base of opposition to match those who love him, which is why I believe he cannot beat John Hickenlooper.

I recently interviewed Tom Tancredo on my radio show and, not surprisingly, he doesn’t buy my analysis, instead offering anecdotes about legal Hispanic immigrants who support his views and suggesting that he can win in November. He played down his anti-immigration (especially anti-legal immigration) rhetoric of the past, but you don’t get a second chance at a first impression. In any case, Tom seems set on his current path.

Unlike Tancredo, however, Cory Gardner is listening. One can almost see a little Ann Coulter sitting on his shoulder, whispering “just say no to immigrants!” But he may be resisting that voice, knowing that outside of that wing of the GOP the writing is on the wall, most urgently here in Colorado: The Republican Party must take more a realistic, broadly acceptable, and, frankly, less xenophobic-sounding approach to immigration — including regarding those who are currently here illegally.

This doesn’t have to mean (and should not mean) a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, most of whom probably care little about voting in comparison to simply being able to work without fear of arrest and separation from their families. And credible border control is a must to prevent the same sort of moral hazard created by Ronald Reagan’s being snookered by Democrats (and a few Republicans) into signing the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act, arguably encouraging a further wave of illegal immigration.

But today’s politics require a different approach and a different tone, new policy and politics that can slowly but surely move the GOP away from being perceived, especially by today’s young adults, as a party of exclusion. Again from the like-it-or-not files, young adults who may have pro-liberty instincts or may lean somewhat socially or fiscally conservative will not support — will simply not associate with — a party it views as being hateful, bigoted, racist, or fill-in-the-blank-phobic.

There is a middle ground to be staked out in the immigration debate, remembering that this discussion is about real people and that demographic changes increase the chance that any given voter knows somebody impacted by the issue. Not Tancredo’s harsh approach, and not Jeb Bush’s “act of love” tripe. Not send them all home, and not let them all vote.

Congressman Gardner soaked in the conversation, clearly considering the words of the diverse group of Republicans (and this independent) in the room. What he decides about this emotion-charged issue as he heads into a nail-biter of an election will be a matter of both principle and politics.

As one of the pastors so eloquently put it, “it’s rare that a candidate has an opportunity to take a position that is both the right thing politically and just the right thing to do.”

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About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.