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.”

Fear among the Republican establishment that Graf was too extreme to win in a moderate district was heightened in this crucial year, when the loss of any seat could tip the balance of the House majority. This is a socially temperate district that sometimes gave the openly gay Republican Kolbe more than 60 percent of the vote. In 2004 Graf–a former pro golfer and state legislator–challenged Kolbe in the primary and won a surprising 42 percent of the vote. The day after the vote, Graf started gearing up for his next shot, the 2006 primary. He campaigned relentlessly and single-mindedly on the border issue, praising the Minutemen and tightly aligning himself with the policies of Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, the leader of House resistance to liberalized immigration reform.

“Randy Graf was in the right place at the right time to capitalize on the immigration issue,” says Margaret Kenski, pollster for Republican Arizona Senator Jon Kyl. Graf, whose campaign wouldn’t schedule an interview with The Nation, cashed in on the national immigration debate that roared through much of this year. And in a five-way primary September 12, Graf came out on top, with a 42 percent plurality. In an unusual move, the NRCC had intervened directly in the primary and poured more than $120,000 into the campaign of his more moderate opponent Steve Huffman–the only race in the country in which the NRCC took sides in a primary. Other top local Republicans lined up with local GOP stalwart Mike Hellon in a move to stop Graf.

But the organizational power of anti-immigration, anti-choice and conservative mega-churches propelled Graf’s victory and also helped defeat a number of other moderate and prochoice Arizona Republican candidates. It also laid bare the GOP’s deep factional fissures. “We’re really in a state of internal warfare,” says a former Republican National Committee member still active in local politics. “It’s really the most extreme Republicans who are winning the primaries, and they’re making it harder and harder for us to win statewide offices. We’ve been through this two or three times already, but after each round it is getting harder to put the party back together again.”

Scrapping Reagan’s so-called Eleventh Commandment enforcing GOP unity, outgoing Representative Kolbe, a firm supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, pointedly un-endorsed Graf on the morrow of his victory, saying that because of “profound and fundamental [differences] I would not be true to my own principles were I to endorse [Graf] now for the general election.” Neither will any endorsement be forthcoming from the state’s most popular Republican, John McCain. Nor from a host of other elected Arizona Republican officials who openly shun Graf.

Apart from Graf’s in-the-tank numbers, he still draws loud jeers from his 2004 appearance on The Daily Show, where he argued to overturn an Arizona law that bans handguns in bars. On the same show he blithely compared the Constitution to a rule book for golf. An unsolicited link to his campaign website from the site of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke hasn’t helped matters.

Arizona Republicans find themselves endangered in other races beyond the 8th district match-up between Graf and Giffords. Conservative six-term Representative J.D. Hayworth, who represents the Phoenix suburbs and whose book Whatever It Takes calls for a ban on legal immigration from Mexico, is facing a serious challenge from Democrat Harry Mitchell. Former Republican Attorney General Grant Woods has endorsed Democrat Mitchell, calling Hayworth “ridiculous.” Even more disturbing to Arizona Republicans is the predicament of Kyl, a recent target of Latinos protesting his immigration policies. Kyl faces a stiff challenge from wealthy Democratic developer Jim Pederson. “Frankly, I’m amazed how competitive Kyl’s race has suddenly become,” says the veteran GOP consultant. And Republican social conservative Len Munsil will need divine intervention to defeat incumbent Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano, last seen outpolling him 56 to 40.

Back in the 8th district, meanwhile, Democrat Gabi Giffords won a contested primary by firmly seizing the political center vacated by Graf’s campaign. A former state legislator (and a former Republican), Giffords has garnered the unified support of the local Democratic and labor machinery but has striven to run what she calls a bipartisan campaign. The national Democratic Party has become so confident of her victory that one day after the NRCC canceled its ad campaign for Graf, the DCCC followed suit on behalf of Giffords.

Already well funded and likely to be buoyed by outside “independent expenditure” campaigns, Giffords has de-emphasized the debate over the war in Iraq and has rather deftly co-opted Graf on the immigration issue. “Starting back in May of last year, the Democrats began pounding away on the border issue as if they were Republicans,” says pollster Kenski. “And Gabi does it as well as any.”

“Enforcement-plus” is the way Giffords describes her immigration position: tighter enforcement, plus an expanded visa and guest-worker program. But listening to Giffords address her campaign supporters at that hillside fundraiser, it sounded like “enforcement” was 90 percent of the equation and that the “plus” was maybe 10 percent. After denouncing a “strategic systematic decision” by the federal government to funnel immigrants through the Arizona desert, she went on to say it’s “just not acceptable to have so many people that we don’t know who they are, we don’t know where they are going and we don’t know what they want.” To stem the tide, she called for more “radar, aerial drones, electronic surveillance, tough employer sanctions”–and, yes, “a guest-worker program.”

During the question-and-answer session, some of the gathered supporters were disgruntled with Giffords’s emphasis on enforcement hardware but nevertheless seemed reassured by her clarifications that immigration reform also had to include expanded legal pathways. “I’d rather she put the emphasis on the second part,” said one of her toughest questioners. “But you have to suppose she’s saying what’s she’s saying because she wants to get elected. I also support that.”

The Giffords campaign coincides with a Latino voter mobilization already under way as a result of this past spring’s upsurge in pro-immigrant demonstrations. As many as 15,000 came out to Tucson street rallies in April to support liberalized border reform. “It’s a hot enough issue that people want to go out and take action. Being part of this campaign is one of those actions,” says Daniel Garcia, a volunteer with the Giffords campaign and with a local affiliate of the grassroots Industrial Areas Foundation. “With Graf and the Minutemen blaming just about everything including global warming on immigrants,” he says, “this race has absolutely become a place where a lot of emotion has surfaced, and we are channeling that into the campaign.” Giffords also has the solid support of the local Democratic political network headed by Representative Raúl Grijalva, one of the strongest voices for immigration reform.

Democrat Tom Volgy, former Tucson mayor and now a university professor, argues that Giffords’s ascension in this southern Arizona district should be unequivocally cheered as a national example. While close-the-border intransigence by the Republican right succeeded in torpedoing comprehensive immigration reform, it has now seemingly boomeranged to the GOP’s disadvantage as an electoral strategy. “Arizona is the most hard hit by immigration,” Volgy says. “But what you see here highlights something really good about the American people. You take a very difficult issue that lends itself to simplistic arguments, but the more you subject it to debate, the more sophisticated and nuanced public opinion becomes. This is the really great part of what’s happening here.”