As about sixty supporters of Democratic Congressional candidate and businesswoman Gabrielle Giffords gathered in late September for a wine and guacamole fundraiser at a local hillside home, their mood was nothing short of electric. Earlier in the day a news report had swept through this desert district with all the drama and punch of a late summer monsoon: The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) had just canceled about $1 million in planned TV ads for Giffords’s GOP rival, Randy Graf. “The Republicans have firmly planted the white flag in this district,” said a jubilant Giffords campaign official. “This is nothing short of surrender.”
Indeed, the Washington Post‘s political blog has identified Arizona’s 8th Congressional District seat, held for eleven terms by retiring moderate Republican Jim Kolbe, as one of those most likely to switch parties in next month’s mid-term elections. Even more important, in a race seen as a national bellwether on the immigration debate, Republican candidate Graf, supported with $40,000 in contributions from a Minuteman PAC, banked his entire campaign on a virulent seal-and-militarize-the-border message. If the anti-immigrant pitch was going to work anywhere in America, this would be the place. The contested district sweeps downward from Tucson, runs along an eighty-mile portion of the Mexican border that is the most trafficked of illegal crossings, and includes such Minuteman hot spots as the towns of Sierra Vista and Tombstone. About half of the illegal aliens apprehended on the US-Mexico border attempt to cross into Arizona, and anti-immigrant sentiment can turn red-hot.
But here in the veritable staging ground of the Minuteman movement, Graf’s campaign has hit the wall. “Randy’s going to get his ass handed to him,” says a veteran Arizona Republican consultant. “And in this national atmosphere, the NRCC isn’t about to piss away a million bucks on him.” The refusal by the national Republican Party to invest in Graf was fueled by some pretty stark numbers, and to a great degree reflects the deep division that runs through the GOP on the issue of immigration.
A late September poll conducted by the Arizona Daily Star showed Giffords out in front of Graf by a whopping 48-35 margin. And while immigration even outranked the war in Iraq by 4 to 1 as the most important issue on local voters’ minds, those who put it first also gave a majority to Giffords, who has endorsed the sort of comprehensive border reform proposed by Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain.
“Graf speaks directly to his base, but only to his base,” says the GOP consultant. “If something freakish were to happen in the next few weeks and this guy were actually to get elected, it would be a disaster for us. Right-wing tirades in a border area like this make Republicans look like crackers. With more and more people coming to live in Arizona and many of them at least slightly liberal, Republicans can’t afford to sound like racists.”