Could the Immigration Issue Upset Democrats in '08?

“The illegal immigration issue cut well for Jim Ogonowski. If he had had the money and resources to put an ad on TV, he would have been the new congressman from the 5th District of Massachusetts. The only thing that kept him from winning was not having money to put an illegal immigration ad on TV, period.”

Those remarks came from Ron Kaufman, Republican National Committeeman from Massachusetts and White House political director under the elder George Bush, a few days after the stunning photo-finish in his state’s special U.S. House election October 16. In a result that few expected, Republican Jim Ogonowski, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, came within a few percentage points (51% to 45%) of defeating Democrat Niki Tsongas, widow of revered Massachusetts Sen. and 1992 Democratic presidential hopeful Paul Tsongas. Pundits and pols agree that Ogonowski’s stronger-than-thought-possible showing was directly related to his sharp difference with Tsongas on the issue of illegal immigration — particularly whether illegal immigrants should have driver’s licenses.

Within days of the Bay State race, others on the national scene began to recognize that illegal immigration is a potent issue for Republicans that presents a great danger to the supposedly rosy Democratic prospects for ’08. As Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D.-Ill.), a past chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Washington Post: “The issue has real implications for the country. It captures all the American people’s anger and frustration, not only with immigration but with the economy.”

Even with the political clout of the Tsongas name, Niki Tsongas’s near-defeat was all the more dramatic because the district has only 14% Republican registration, and Democratic Sen. John Kerry (who ran for the same House seat in 1972) rolled up 57% of the vote in carrying the district over George W. Bush in ’04. Moreover, Tsongas had overwhelming financial firepower, receiving help from EMILY’s List, labor unions and a Who’s Who of visiting campaigners: Kerry, Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) and Bill Clinton.

Ogonowski, brother of the pilot of the hijacked 9/11 American Airlines jet flown into the World Trade Center, also had issues other than immigration on his side. He campaigned foursquare in favor of tax cuts and against the current Congress. Although the 50-year-old Republican mobilized enthusiastic volunteers and had scored well in debates with Tsongas, sources in and outside the 5th District still agree that the issue of illegal immigration did the most to propel him to a near-win. On the Sunday before the balloting, Tsongas made headlines by saying she would support allowing illegal immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. The controversial nature of her remarks was exacerbated by the fact they came on the heels of her embrace of all the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which called for barring licenses for illegal immigrants.

Ogonowski hit the issue hard and it dominated the final 72 hours of the campaign.
“Local media gave it heavy play, and Tsongas went underground,” Connecticut Republican Chairman Chris Healy, who took three days in the neighboring state to walk precincts for Ogonowski, told me after the vote.|

In coming as close as he did in a district that has not sent a Republican to Congress since 1972, Ogonowski actually ran ahead of Bush’s ’04 performance in the suburbs of Lowell and Lawrence. Veteran election analyst Michael Barone, author of the Almanac of American Politics, concluded that “Ogonowski’s two leading substantive issues, taxes and immigration, cut significantly into the Democratic vote in middle-income areas, while failing utterly to do so in the high-income suburbs.”

After the balloting, Connecticut’s Healy wrote a three-page letter to Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan complaining that the national party’s regional operative was called back and saying that an additional “$150,000 to $200,000 for television the last five days” could have put Ogonowski over. But Kaufman, who was also walking precincts for the GOP hopeful, told me that “the RNC and NRCC, which are cash-strapped, did all they could.”

In the wake of the Massachusetts results, will Republican national and congressional leaders now address an issue many have long backpedaled on but is now shaping up to be a political tsunami?