As strange as it may seem to those of us living in Utah, most Americans don’t have much of an opinion about Utah at all, except that it’s one of those big, sort of squarish states in the west. So it can only seem more than a little weird to most Americans that the fate of our nation’s immigration policy rests in the hands of voters in Utah’s 3rd congressional district, which many assume is sparsely populated by a handful of hicks.
As WSJ editorial columnist John Fund explains here, Utah’s June 27 primary election coincides with the conference committee meetings that will try to reconcile the radically different U.S. Senate and House immigration bills. Utah’s 3rd district Congressman, Chris Cannon, has been taking certain political risks with his rather pro-immigration stance. Cannon has repeatedly come across as not only pro-immigration, but very lax on illegal immigration.
The trouble is that the 3rd district is, per John Fund’s assessment, “the country's most conservative congressional district.” Cannon has been aware that his stance on immigration has riled some of his constituents, but he was probably caught a little off guard by the level and intensity of this sentiment at the state Republican convention earlier this month, where Cannon ended up being forced into a primary, coming in second behind challenger John Jacob by a couple of percentage points (see here).
The House’s immigration bill is pretty much all enforcement, while the Senate’s immigration bill is pretty much all amnesty. That’s a tremendous oversimplification of the matter. As I read it, the House is generally not opposed to more open immigration (although some representatives definitely are opposed to it), but there is a very strong sentiment that enforcement must come first. Many feel that proper immigration policy cannot happen until we fix our porous southern border. While visiting Utah earlier this month, Senator John McCain (though not a member of the House) captured this sentiment when he likened our illegal immigration problem to a bathtub overflowing. He said that when your bathtub overflows you first turn off the water before you try to clean up the mess.
It’s obvious that many senators don’t agree with Senator McCain on the nature of the threat posed by illegal immigration or on the methodology for cleaning it up. The Senate bill largely seeks to confer legal status on immigrants in our country illegally, and to provide a continued flow of low-wage workers for American businesses. The bill includes just enough enforcement provisions to snare enough conservative-leaning senators for passage. Senator Bob Bennett voted for the bill, while Senator Orrin Hatch voted against the bill. Note that Hatch is up for election this year, while Bennett has four years to go and my not run for a fourth term. Nobody really believes that the enforcement provisions of the Senate bill will end up being implemented in any meaningful way, and many are just fine with that.
Neither the House nor Senate bills adequately provide remedies for the cumbersome nature of our current legal immigration system. Neither bill addresses my primary concern with assimilating immigrants, making them Americans in their hearts.
Back to the original issue: why is Utah’s 3rd congressional district the tail wagging the dog on national immigration policy? House Republicans are looking to this race as a bellwether for immigration policy sentiment among the GOP conservative base nationwide. All House seats are up for election this year. Cannon is an entrenched Republican member of the House. There is little fear that he could lose in November, but there is real fear that he could lose in June. If that happens, representatives in a number of congressional districts will suddenly see the prospect of their own political demise. House Republicans would see Cannon's fall as an incursion into what they previously thought was unassailable “Incumbistan” (hat tip Mark Steyn).
The Republican leadership in the House already fears that the loss of a few key seats could cost them control of that chamber of Congress this fall. They already know that a significant chunk of their base is upset with them for accomplishing little more than increasing the national debt. They are walking on eggshells in an attempt to avoid upsetting the folks that could punish them the most in November. So, if Cannon goes down in flames over this one issue, watch for House Republicans to circle the wagons and hold the line against lax immigration policy in the conference committee meetings.
House Republicans are over a barrel on this issue. They know that their trust level among voters is low and that “it is vital that Republicans pass some immigration bill this year to prove they can govern.” Senators also sense this need, but since they represent larger populations, they are not quite as vulnerable on the issue as are House representatives in certain key districts. The House needs a bill this year more than the Senate does, although, both chambers are heavily invested. If the house digs in its spurs in the conference committee, some senators may be willing to walk away from immigration reform this year. The House can’t let that happen, but since they fear conservative backlash they also can’t let something pass that appears lax on illegal immigration. It’s a difficult position.
There is no guarantee that Cannon is down the tube next month. It is difficult to gauge the level of enthusiasm for John Jacob. From a politician’s point of view, any support in your favor is good, but support for you simply as a default outlet for opposition to your opponent is fickle and less secure than enthusiastic support for you and your policies. Winning among convention delegates that are very politically active tends to be much easier than winning a primary election.
The late June election date weeds out many voters due to summer apathy. People are busy with other things and are not thinking about elections. The date gives candidates more time to prepare for November, but it’s not good for election turnout. While the 3rd district is one of the most Republican districts in the nation, it’s difficult to know how many registered voters will turn out to vote and how many of them are energized on the immigration issue. Outside of this issue, the average 3rd district Republican voter (non-political junkie) would be hard pressed to give you any concrete reason for not supporting their sitting Congressman. Many people will consider themselves insufficiently informed to vote on the matter. Many will vote for the devil they know rather than take a chance on something unfamiliar.
The House Republican leadership understands how difficult primary elections of this nature are to predict, and that’s why they’re biting their nails. They’re not worried about the district remaining Republican. But they are concerned that the demise of an incumbent, given all of the systems that have been put in place to protect incumbents, will signal that enough GOP incumbents in other districts are at risk over the immigration issue as to cause them to question their ability to retain control of the House in November. Maybe these guys should have been thinking about this over the past couple of years as they have repeatedly blown it on legislation important to conservatives.