Former congressional candidate Vernon Robinson sounds resigned, and more than a little tired, when you ask him to explain his defeat. "The 2006 election was not a referendum on immigration," he says. "I would have liked it to be, but it didn't happen."
That's an understatement. In the tumultuous political year of 2006, Robinson, a former city councilman from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, became one of the country's most notorious voices for a crackdown on illegal immigration. In March, as the Republican-led House of Representatives wrestled with a harsh reform bill that would build a wall on the border and classify crossers as felons, Robinson's campaign launched a TV ad that opened with the theme from The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling-style narration: "If you're a conservative Republican, watching the news these days can make you feel as though you're in the Twilight Zone….The aliens are here, but they didn't come in a spaceship. They came across our unguarded Mexican border by the millions."
The ad was a sensation. For everyone who saw it in North Carolina's 13th District, where Robinson was challenging Democratic Rep. Brad Miller, dozens more saw it on YouTube and on blogs that trafficked the ad across the Web. "This is tough," Hardball host Chris Matthews swooned, re-running the ad on his MSNBC chat fest. "It's strong, it makes fun of the other side viciously, but I remember it. I'm going to remember this ad."
Robinson, who had already alienated Republican allies like Jack Kemp with his approach to immigration, issued more commercials blasting the Democrat for voting against a border wall or a cutoff on benefits for undocumented workers. One radio ad set Miller-bashing lyrics to the Beverly Hillbillies theme ("Come and hear me tell about a politician named Brad. He gave illegal aliens everything we had!"). The Democrats were spooked, even before the influential political magazine Congressional Quarterly pondered the tone of the campaign and increased its odds for a Robinson upset.
"Both myself and my opponent thought it was going to be a photo finish," Robinson remembers. "He wouldn't have stood in rain for two hours on Election Day if he thought it wouldn't be close."
If so, both men were wrong. The Democrat, who had won 59 percent of the vote in 2004, thumped the well-funded Robinson by 28 points. After a year in which the immigration issue inspired reform bills, citizen border patrols, mass marches of undocumented workers, and untold hours of talk show screaming, a candidate who had seemed to strike a hidden chord with voters lost in a rout.
It's not a new thing for the media to misread the mood of the country on a hot issue. But the crumbling of the immigration backlash was almost without precedent. Poll after poll showed voters angry about the influx of Mexican workers and willing to do almost anything to stop it. A much-cited April survey by Rasmussen Reports showed a whopping 30 percent of voters ready to elect a third-party presidential candidate who "promised to build a barrier along the Mexican border and make enforcement of immigration law his top priority." Politicians, who like to pretend they ignore the polls and lead with their guts, were clearly sweating that datum.
In April, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean declared that Republicans would wield the immigration issue the way "they used gay marriage" in 2004-tossing a banana peel on the floor and waiting for Democrats to walk on by. Lo and behold, the GOP did. Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum papered the state with stickers announcing Democrat Bob Casey's support for immigrant amnesty: "13 Million Illegal Aliens Are Counting on Him." He also campaigned with the mayor of Hazelton, who was pushing a town law that would fine landlords or employers who dealt with illegal immigrants.
Casey drubbed Santorum by 18 points. In Luzerne County, where Hazelton is located, he beat him by 21 points. But that result didn't shock like the fate of Arizona's J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf. Hayworth, who'd opposed a harsh immigration state ballot measure in 2004, entered the campaign with the publication of an anti-immigration book called Whatever It Takes. Readers who flipped past the cover photo of Hayworth hanging tough in front of the border fence got to read the congressman's thoughts on dispatching troops to the country's southern flank and quashing Mexico's secret desire to reconquer the Southwest.
Graf, who was running for the seat of immigration moderate (and fellow Republican) Jim Kolbe, got financial support from the border-patrolling Minuteman project. Both men lost congressional seats in districts that had twice voted for George W. Bush.
Those losses, lined up next to each other like evidence at a trial, look like they debunk the immigration hype. But it's no use getting a Republican to admit that the issue didn't go the hard-liners' way. It wasn't that voters didn't want to close the border, the hard-liners assert, it was that voters who wanted to do that were distracted by anger over the war in Iraq and other issues, and voted for Democrats anyway.
"Immigration was a winning issue," says National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ed Petru. "You wouldn't have seen so many ads on it if our candidates weren't on the winning side of the immigration issue. It helped stress the contrast between our candidates and the Democrats who favored amnesty. But having a winning issue is not the same as having an issue that can compensate for all the disadvantages our candidates had this cycle."
You'll hear the same tune from the candidates themselves. "The Democrats did a good job of nationalizing the war in Iraq and national sentiment against Congress," says Graf. "The sixth year of a presidency is historically not a good year for the party in the majority. We had a late primary and an eight-week general election. Between that and the party unity I didn't have on my side, it was just not going to go our way."
In other words, the hard-liners have a bucket of red herrings. Epochal issues can change an electorate's mood or historical patterns; eight years ago, anger over the drawn-out impeachment of Bill Clinton inspired voters to add more Democrats to Congress, despite the "rule" of the sixth-year slump. If a serious border crackdown and a Mexican Wall were really burning up American passions, they would have moved voters to action.
Some hard-liners argue they were moved. "The same voters who opposed Graf and Hayworth overwhelmingly approved four get-tough ballot measures," says Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a border hawk.
But those referenda didn't comport with the hard-line approach. One made English the official language of Arizona, a measure beloved not just by the anti-immigration crowd but by many pro-immigration pundits who think it will encourage assimilation. The other three initiatives cut off free social services for noncitizens, more in line with the harshness hard-liners expected from voters but a far cry from the "kick 'em out, build a wall" attitude they claimed to be riding to victory.
The idea that Americans might be more compassionate about immigrants than they let on is a tough one for hard-liners to comprehend. Most Americans, though eager to exercise some control over the border, don't see their would-be fellow citizens as a menace. Immigration hawks who look at those huddled masses and choose to see an ugly threat will keep getting the same results they got this year. They'll lose.
David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.