GOP using immigration to turn out Republican base

Patrolling the border
A vehicle drives along the US-Mexico border fence at sunset in an area where activists opposing illegal immigration search for border crossers near Campo, California. The activists want the fence expanded into a fully-lit double-fenced barrier between the US and Mexico.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty started running an ad that criticizes his opponents on the issue of immigration. The ad blasts the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson for supporting a plan that would allow people who are in the country illegally to pay in-state college tuition rates, which are lower. The ad also rips DFLer Mike Hatch for not taking a stand on the issue.

"Fortunately, our governor is Tim Pawlenty" Pawlenty's ad says. "Under Governor Pawlenty, in state tuition for illegal immigrants will not happen."

Michele Bachmann, the Republican running for Congress in Minnesota's 6th Congressional District, also started running an ad this week criticizing her DFL opponent, Patty Wetterling, for not being tough enough on the issue.

"With 12 million illegal aliens already here," Bachmann's ad says, "Wetterling said immigration is not an urgent crisis."

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The ads by Pawlenty and Bachmann are just two of several GOP ads focusing on illegal immigration. Republican John Kline, who represents Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District, is running an ad similar to Bachmann's. And the Republican National Congressional Committee has a similar ad airing on behalf of Congressman Gil Gutknecht in Minnesota's 1st Congressional District. The candidates say it's a mere coincidence that they're running ads on the same issue at the same time.

"They're focusing all of their efforts on getting out their own supports. And it's clear that there's a great deal of intensity on this issue in the Republican base."

Kline, who is running against DFLer Coleen Rowley, says it's the number one issue among his constituents.

"I know that it's been talked about in a lot of races around the country," Kline said. "But it was clear to us just based on the volume and the intensity of the communications to the congressional office that this was an issue important to the people of the 2nd District."

This isn't the first time immigration has become a focus in the last days of the campaign. Pawlenty ran an ad on the issue during his 2002 race for governor that some experts say helped him win that election. Recent polls suggest the issue helps GOP candidates. Republicans are scoring better than Democrats as the party better able to handle the issue of illegal immigration.

The most recent poll, released from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, says illegal immigration is also one of the top issues among rank and file Republicans and is tied for the top issue among conservative Republicans.

Pew has been polling voters in the 40 most competitive congressional districts in the nation, including Minnesota's 6th Congressional District. Pew pollster Carroll Doherty says GOP candidates nationwide are running ads on immigration to stir the passions of their core supporters.

"At this stage in the campaign, that's what the candidates and the campaigns are doing," Doherty said. "They're focusing all of their efforts on getting out their own supports. And it's clear that there's a great deal of intensity on this issue in the Republican base."

Doherty says Pew's polling finds that most people want to see a comprehensive immigration policy, not just a policy that focuses on border security and illegal immigration -- two key themes for Republicans.

That has given Democrats ammunition to return fire on the immigration issue. Mike Hatch started running an ad criticizing Pawlenty on illegal immigration just hours after Pawlenty's ad hit the airwaves. Democrat Tim Walz, who's running against Republican Congressman Gil Gutknecht in the 1st Congressional District, also started running an ad criticizing Gutknecht for his record on immigration. Even though he's spending money on the issue, Walz says immigration is not the most important concern among Democrats and independents.

"The war in Iraq is the core issue," Walz said. "The mismanagement of government is the core issue. Health care is a core issue. Immigration is one that needs to be dealt with but that group of people, my group that I'm resonating with, knows that this is nothing more than election year posturing by my opponent.

Democratic strategists have also encouraged their candidates to remind Republicans that the alleged explosion on illegal immigration has occurred on the GOP's watch. Groups representing immigrants in Minnesota say they're disappointed that both parties are placing so much emphasis on the immigration issue.