Rep. Raul Grijalva (D.) serves a district, the Arizona 7th, that is almost 55 percent Hispanic. He probably wasn’t surprised to hear the crowd cheering in Spanish at Wednesday night’s congressional debate. But he almost certainly wasn’t expecting those cheers to be directed at his opponent. “¡Viva Ruth! ¡Viva Ruth! ¡Viva Ruth!” supporters of Republican nominee Ruth McClung chanted as the candidates took the stage in Tucson. “¡Ruth sí se puede!” they added: Yes, Ruth can! If she does, it will be one of the biggest upsets of this election cycle.
Grijalva’s seat had long seemed one of the safest in the country (the four-term Democrat has never received less than 59 percent of the vote). So safe, in fact, that Grijalva apparently had no qualms about promoting an economic boycott of his own state, which has the second-highest poverty rate in the country. He did so in response to S.B. 1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law, which he vocally opposed. These positions could end up costing him his seat.
An automated survey conducted on September 29 showed Grijalva leading McClung, a real-life rocket scientist, by just two points: 40 to 38 percent. A more recent survey, taken October 5–6, showed McClung in the lead: 39 to 37 percent, with a whopping 24 percent undecided — always a bad sign for an incumbent. GOP strategists believe they have a realistic chance of pulling off the upset. So does Americans for Tax Reform, which recently launched a $230,000 ad buy targeting Grijalva.
McClung, who has received endorsements from Sen. John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin, told National Review Online that the survey results were consistent with the numbers her campaign was getting. She has slammed Grijalva’s call for a boycott, calling it “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and has asked him to apologize. “To call for a boycott of his own state at any time, but especially during a recession, is just a slap in the face,” McClung said.
Grijalva’s district has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. In Yuma County, unemployment is approaching 30 percent. With the economy failing to improve, Grijalva’s boycott position has become impossible to defend. He finally backtracked during a debate last week, admitting he had made a “strategic mistake,” but he has not yet actually apologized.
Though the once-blinding national spotlight on Arizona and its immigration law has dimmed, the issue remains as relevant as ever within the state. The Grijalva/McClung matchup is one of several races in the state where immigration issues could affect the outcome. “This wouldn’t even be on the radar screen at all if it wasn’t for the immigration issue,” Isaac Wood, House-race editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said of the Grijalva race. “And in the other races I think it has definitely cranked the temperature up a few degrees.”
Democrats currently occupy five of the state’s eight seats in the House. This year, in addition to Grijalva’s seat, Republicans have a real shot at taking back three of the other four. Besides feeling the heat over a struggling economy and unpopular votes for Obamacare and the stimulus package, the Democratic incumbents in Arizona’s 1st, 5th, and 8th congressional districts are suffering from their own party’s approach to illegal immigration, which has so far involved (a) doing nothing and (b) issuing a federal injunction against a state law that a majority of Americans support — including 70 percent of Arizonans.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, in the 1st CD, won her first term in 2008, giving Democrats a majority of the state’s House delegation for the first time in over half a century. She is widely viewed as the state’s most vulnerable Democrat. The Cook Political Report recently downgraded her seat from “Toss Up” to “Lean Republican.” Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gives Kirkpatrick’s opponent, Paul Gosar, a dentist and small-business owner, an 85 percent chance to win the seat.
Reps. Harry Mitchell, in the 5th CD, and Gabrielle Giffords, in the 8th, are self-proclaimed “Blue Dogs” who won their seats in the midterm wave of 2006. Like most Democrats from typically conservative states, both are struggling to defend their votes for health-care reform and the stimulus package. Cook rates both races as “Toss Up,” though FiveThirtyEight gives Mitchell a 75 percent chance of losing his seat to Republican David Schweikert in a rematch of 2008.
Joanna Burgos, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, highlights the importance of the immigration issue. “All three would have faced challenges this year,” Burgos said of Giffords, Mitchell, and Kirkpatrick, “but the immigration issue is probably the nail in the coffin, and they realize it.”
All three were conspicuously silent when Gov. Jan Brewer signed the immigration bill, SB 1070, into law back in April, and seemed content to let Grijalva do their talking for them. Echoing the line from the White House, he called SB 1070 “dangerous and meanspirited.”
Each has since tried to reassure voters with vague requests for “more troops” and “additional funding” to secure the border, or by blaming the failure of “Washington” to address the issue, but without ever mentioning the efficacy of SB 1070. “There are no winners here,” Kirkpatrick wrote in a statement. Unfortunately for these three Democrats, before being elected to the U.S. House, they all spent time in the Arizona state legislature, where they voted against a number of border-security measures.
Isaac Wood said the controversy over the immigration law is “certainly having an effect” on Democratic candidates, despite their efforts to distance themselves from party leadership. “[Arizona] Democrats are in a tough place. Voters overwhelmingly support the law, but Democrats in D.C. are strongly against it, so they are forced to pick sides,” Wood said. “Either way, they risk being found guilty by association.”
Burgos said the political landscape in Arizona has shifted considerably in the Republicans’ favor since SB 1070 was passed. “These are districts the Democrats thought were trending their way, but now we see them trending the Republicans’ way, and a big part of that is illegal immigration,” she said. “It’s not about being conservative or liberal. It’s about wanting to stop criminal activity in your own backyard.”
Giffords, Mitchell, Kirkpatrick, and now Grijalva are scrambling to make things right with an angry electorate, whether by apologizing for the ill-advised boycott or by abandoning the national party line altogether. For Arizona voters, though, it could be too little, too late.
— Andrew Stiles writes for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.