Republicans on Tuesday managed both to lose their majority in Congress and alienate a fast-growing bloc of Latino swing voters. Other than that, the House GOP strategy of trying to save itself by bucking President Bush and using immigration as a wedge issue worked pretty well.
Republicans can't say they weren't warned. Like trade protectionism, the immigration issue is the fool's gold of American politics. Voters like to sound off to pollsters about immigrants, yet they pull the lever with other matters foremost in mind. Elections seldom if ever turn on immigration, and the GOP restrictionist message so adored by talk radio, cable news and the nativist blogosphere once again failed to deliver the goods.
Worse, this time Republicans made "securing the border" a loud national theme, only to do nothing about it save for approving a 700-mile fence along a 1,951-mile Mexican-U.S. border. They thus managed to highlight either their fecklessness in failing to do something about an allegedly urgent problem, or their cynicism in raising it at all.
In Arizona, which is ground zero in the illegal alien debate, two Republicans defined by their opposition to immigration were defeated by wide margins. Representative J.D. Hayworth, who is so proud of his desire to turn the U.S. into a single gated community that he wrote a book about it, lost handily. So did Randy Graf, another anti-immigration absolutist who ran for an open seat in a district that borders Mexico and sees more illegal immigrant traffic than perhaps any other Congressional seat in the nation.
These Democratic gains came in solidly Republican districts that President Bush won easily two years ago. Mr. Graf was seeking to fill the slot now held by Representative Jim Kolbe, an 11-term Republican who's retiring. Mr. Kolbe is a supporter of the comprehensive approach to immigration reform favored by the President but spurned by GOP restrictionists. It would combine more border security with a guest-worker program for newcomers and a path to legal status for undocumented workers already here. Mr. Kolbe won 60% of the vote in 2004. Mr. Graf was trounced, 54%-42%, on Tuesday, after having won a primary against a Republican with views similar to Mr. Kolbe's who could have held the seat.
Indiana incumbent John Hostettler, who chairs a House subcommittee on immigration and is one of his party's most outspoken restrictionists, managed to win just 39% of the vote in his losing bid for a seventh term. Mr. Hostettler's district is so Republican that John Kerry won only 38% of the vote there in 2004.
Colorado Congressman Bob Beauprez made opposition to illegal aliens the centerpiece of his gubernatorial bid. He lost to his Democratic opponent by 15 percentage points. The GOP candidate who ran to replace Mr. Beauprez in the House and appropriated much of his anti-immigration rhetoric also lost by nearly as much.
GOP Senate candidates who thought immigration would put them over the top were disappointed as well. The issue didn't help the cause of challengers like Tom Kean in New Jersey and Mike McGavick in Washington state, both of whom tried to make illegal aliens an issue down the stretch but still lost to vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Nor was it the silver bullet for Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, who fell 59%-41%. Senator Santorum spent the summer trying to link Mexican immigrants to the Iraq war. By the end of the campaign, he was accusing anyone who favored comprehensive immigration reform of being soft on terrorism.
In addition to losing seats, however, the GOP's restrictionist strategy has reversed significant gains among Latino voters. Exit polls show that 70% of Hispanics voted Democratic in House races this year. Meanwhile, some 29% voted Republican -- an eight-percentage-point drop from the 2002 midterm, and down 15 points from the 44% won by President Bush in 2004 (which had improved from 31% in 2000).
The GOP has a long history of fumbling the immigrant issue. And Mr. Bush, a former border-state governor who knows the issue well, has wisely been trying to steer his party away from repeating those mistakes. Mr. Bush might yet save his party from losing generations of Latinos the way its xenophobic message in the early 20th century turned away Irish, Italian and Asian voters for decades. He told reporters this week that immigration is an area where "I believe we can find some common ground with the Democrats."
We hope his party lets him, having learned the hard way not to follow Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly and the editors of National Review magazine down the garden path to defeat.