Ariz. Primary Puts Focus on Immigration

TUCSON, ARIZ.—In Arizona’s 8th District today, 11 candidates are vying for the chance to represent their parties in the race to replace retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe (R.), who has occupied the seat since 1984.

Though only the primary, today may likely decide who will be this border district’s next congressman. And it doesn’t look good for the Republicans.

According to recent polling by Zimmerman and Associates Marketing and Intelligence, among the two leading Republican candidates, former state legislator Randy Graf leads current Arizona House member Steve Huffman by eight points among Republican voters.

But Graf would lose in a general election to Democratic front-runner Gabrielle Giffords.

In the unlikely occurrence of a Giffords loss in the primary to former anchorwoman for Tucson’s NBC affiliate Patty Weiss—who lags 16 points behind Giffords—Graf, again, would lose in a general election.

For his part, Huffman looks only slightly better. In a general election match-up against Giffords—who has already amassed a war chest of $1.1 million—Huffman also loses, though falling within the 3.5% margin of error.

But supporters of Graf, including Minutemen Civil Defense Corps founder Chris Simcox, discount such early polling and see Graf as the best hope for Arizona.

“I personally endorse Graf and our PAC is running ads for him,” Simcox said.

He thinks Graf is the only candidate who is tough enough on illegal immigration, an issue 32% of Arizona voters in a recent Rasmussen poll named as the top issue facing the country.

As an example of how important the issue of illegal immigration is in this part of the country, the situation in Iraq ranked first among only 17% of Arizonans. Some candidates, such as Dan Goldwater (nephew of Barry), a Republican looking to unseat Gov. Janet Napolitano (D.), have even advertised their Minutemen memberships in efforts to show their immigration bona fides.

“The Republicans have an edge,” Simcox said, “and I think independents are going to go toward anyone who’s going to get serious about the most serious issues that affect the citizens of Arizona.”

Arizona’s 8th District has at least 76,000 voters registered as independents or with other parties and likely will be the deciding factor in any general election contest, as Republicans have only a slight numeric edge among registered voters.

For Simcox, illegal immigration, crime and national security are closely related issues.

“Document falsification is a multi-million dollar business in this country,” he said. “I have boxes full of driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and birth certificates that we have found in the backpacks in the desert … they just leave them behind because wherever they go they just get new ones.

“If a busboy or a cook from Mexico can get around that and get fake documents and get into this country, what does that say about national security?”

Although Border Patrol has stepped up its operations along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona through its much-publicized Arizona Border Control Initiative—boasting of 384,000 illegals captured in 2004, along with 388,000 pounds of marijuana and 5,000 pounds of cocaine—Arizona is still the border crossing of choice for illegal immigrants.

According to some estimates Arizona, with a population of about 5.5 million people, has an illegal population of 500,000. In other words, nearly 10% of Arizona residents are illegal immigrants.

And while most Arizonans agree that illegal immigrants are here for economic and not nefarious criminal reasons, violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants make frequent headlines.

Recently, a Scottsdale janitor employed at a high school through an outside contractor was charged with raping a 14-year-old female student.

The suspect, Roberto Lemus-Retana, is an illegal immigrant from Mexico and should not have been able to work in the United States. But he, like millions of illegals around the country, provided false documentation and was hired to work at the high school.

Lemus-Retana had been arrested for a DUI in May—months before the alleged rape—and should have been deported. According to media reports, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has not confirmed if he was ever deported.

The desire among Arizonans to get tougher on immigration could fuel support for Graf, who has gained the endorsement of Rep. Tom Tancredo (R.-Colo.), known for his hard line on immigration policy.

But the National Republican Congressional Committee, perhaps sensing that Graf—seen in Arizona as the more conservative Republican candidate—could not prevail against the Giffords machine, has chosen Steve Huffman as its candidate.

The move—in particular the $122,000 the NRCC kicked in for Huffman campaign ads—infuriated Graf who, along with two other Republican hopefuls, denounced the NRCC for meddling in a state primary.

The three issued a joint statement upbraiding Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman and the NRCC for breaching an agreement to stay out of the race until 8th District voters decide who should face off against the Democrat.