Cannon's Victory Means Little in Immigration Debate

In a race with national implications, and dominated by the sole issue of illegal immigration, Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) scratched out another all-but-certain 2-year term by winning his Republican primary race against millionaire developer John Jacob on Tuesday, 56% to 44%. But those hoping this race would serve as a bellwether for congressional action on immigration reform or the November elections won’t be able to take much from this contest.

Most importantly, Cannon didn’t win this race so much as Jacob lost it.  More on that later.  And anyone who thinks Cannon’s re-election means the immigration issue isn’t resonating at the ballot box and won’t be a decisive factor in other close races in November is deluding himself.  As are the White House and the U.S. Senate if they think Cannon’s victory is a sign that they can safely move forward with a guest worker program.  No such mandate can be taken from the Utah 3rd congressional district race.

One of the main reasons is that Cannon successfully re-invented himself over the past few months.  While once an outspoken advocate of lax immigration policies — telling a Hispanic audience at one point that he didn’t make much of a distinction between legal and illegal immigration — Cannon all but became a born-again Tom Tancredo, the outspoken anti-illegal immigration congressman from Colorado, in his campaign rhetoric the days and weeks leading up to the election. Had Cannon not all but renounced his own past policy proposals and votes, the result on Tuesday could have been very different.

Also, it’s important to note that the White House brought out its big gun to pull Cannon’s fat from the fire.  No, not the President.  The First Lady.  As the White House’s point man on immigration for the past few years, the Bush team recognized that Cannon’s defeat would mean the end of any hope for the president’s guest worker program.  So Laura Bush, whose popularity is unmatched inside the Beltway, recorded a very strong phone message which was piped into the district just days before the ballots were cast.  The last-minute endorsement by Mrs. Bush surely had a positive impact on the outcome of this race.

And then there was the challenger…

On paper, John Jacob certainly appeared to be a formidable opponent.  In Utah, candidates can avoid a primary election if they obtain 60 percent or more of the delegate votes at the party’s spring convention. Not only did Cannon fail to obtain the convention endorsement, but he actually lost the balloting to Jacob, 52-48 percent.  In addition, unlike the primary challenger from two years ago, Jacob was understood to be a very wealthy individual who was willing and able to fully self-fund his campaign.  So on the surface it looked like a perfect storm scenario for a major upset: a weak incumbent, a red-hot contrasting issue and a credible challenger who could write his own checks to deliver his campaign message.

However, just days before the election, stories appeared which set off alarm bells for seasoned political professionals.  The first was when Jacob announced he couldn’t afford to go up on TV the full two weeks leading up to Game Day.  The second was that the Jacob campaign hadn’t devoted any serious time or attention to wooing early and absentee ballot voters — voters which can, and often do, make or break a close election.  And it went downhill from there.

It’s difficult enough to take out an incumbent as is.  You have to run an almost flawless campaign no matter how much money you have, even with the illegal immigration issue on your side.  But John Jacob’s performance over the final two weeks of the campaign was anything but flawless.

First came the reports that Jacob may have unlawfully funneled money to an immigrant family.  It was an involved and detailed story, but in our sound-bite age all the public heard was that Jacob was a personal hypocrite on the immigration issue.  Right or wrong, that’s how the story was perceived by the electorate.

Then Jacob was forced to admit, in no particular order, that he: 1) had a gambling “problem,” 2) had his figures all wrong regarding the number of illegal aliens being housed in a Utah jail, 3) had not one, but two bankruptcies and other business failures, and 4) had a “path to citizenship” proposal of his own based on a practice at Disneyland called FastPass which allows certain people to jump to the front of the line.  In other words, “amnesty” by another name.

However, the final nail in the coffin came just five days before the election, at a time when Jacob was, despite all his other problems, still in a statistical dead heat with the incumbent.

First at a campaign event, and then in front of editors from the state’s largest newspaper, Jacob blamed his struggles in challenging Cannon on…the devil.  According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Jacob said that “since he decided to run for Congress, Satan (had) disrupted his business deals, preventing him from putting as much money into the race as he had hoped.”  Overnight, the comments made their way from Utah all across the country and even as far away as London.  Jacob tried to recover, saying his “devil” remarks were taken out of context, but the damage was done.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Considering the support Cannon received from the White House which other candidates aren’t likely to receive in November, and considering how spectacularly the challenger in this race blew up his campaign in the end, incumbents who the public perceive are on the wrong side of the enforcement-first brigades of the illegal immigration war are susceptible to ballot box defeat.  It’s not a matter of “if” the immigration issue will decide a close race sometime in the near future; it’s when.  Cannon dodged the bullet.  Others won’t be so lucky.

And that’s the bottom line lesson from Tuesday’s shoot-out in Utah.