GOP Watching Gilchrist Race

A nice recap of the Gilchrist campaign from USA Today:

Conservatives who see illegal immigration as the next powerful political issue are getting an early test run barely 100 miles from the Mexican border.

Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minuteman Project of armed citizen border patrols that began last fall, has transformed a special congressional election with his call to put U.S. troops along the Mexican border to choke off the human flow.

GOP strategists say the contest is a preview of the potential strength of illegal immigration as a ballot-box issue. They are looking to opposition to illegal immigration as a way to edge out Democrats in 2006, and not just in border states.

“I see immigration as being the welfare reform of this decade,” says Republican pollster Frank Luntz, referring to an issue that united Republicans in the 1990s to the detriment of Democrats.

Gilchrist is running in a special election Tuesday to fill a vacant seat in the House of Representatives from Orange County district south of Los Angeles. He faces Republican John Campbell, a state senator and millionaire car dealer, and Democrat Steve Young, a lawyer, in a district that is reliably Republican.

Gilchrist, 56, is a retired CPA who made headlines when he led a posse to the U.S.-Mexican border last year to combat what he says is lax enforcement of the southern U.S. border. He and his Minutemen scan the border crossing with binoculars and call in the Border Patrol when they spot people trying to sneak past.

They have been denounced by the American Civil Liberties Union, and even President Bush alluded to them as “vigilantes.” But a November poll by Rasmussen Reports says 75% of Americans consider immigration to be somewhat or very important to their vote in 2006.

“It’s an economic and quality of life issue,” says Luntz, pointing to concern that the influx can overwhelm schools, hospitals and public services. “People are witnessing the impact of illegal immigrants right in their communities.”

Gilchrist does not tiptoe around the issue, which is why voter response to him is being watched.

He calls for increasing federal Border Patrol and customs enforcement spending fivefold. He would put tens of thousands of military troops on patrol along the 2,000-mile southern border and deport the more than 11 million people now in this country illegally.

The race is for the seat of veteran incumbent Chris Cox, who was appointed by Bush to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. In a 17-way primary Oct. 6, Gilchrist took third with 15% of the vote. He raised $600,000 in less than three months, and though that’s half what Campbell raised it is an impressive sum for an independent.

“If I win this race, it’s going to be the earthquake felt throughout the (Washington) Beltway,” he says.

Campbell, who led the first primary with 46% of the vote, backs Bush’s plan to allow more “guest workers” into the country along with more enforcement of immigration laws.

“I think we should stem the flow of illegal immigrants immediately,” Campbell says. “But eventually I believe we should have more legal immigration, which could include some temporary work visas.”

Young, the Democrat, would let workers here from Mexico buy their way into the USA for $3,000 per person.

“I really think it’s a false issue,” Young says of illegal immigration.

Howard Dean, head of the Democratic National Committee, blasted Bush’s immigration plan, accusing him of “scapegoating” the border crossers. But even among GOP faithful there is dissent.

Republican strategists say business leaders who donate to Republican causes want to avoid choking off the supply of low-paid workers.

“There’s a great danger if Republicans adopt the approach of demonizing immigration and wanting to throw up walls,” says Daniel Griswold, trade and immigration expert at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. “I think the right policy and right politics are for Republicans to embrace the more optimistic, welcoming conservatism of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.”

Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, says that while it is doubtful he can win, Gilchrist has already altered the race. Gilchrist’s vote helped deny Campbell the 50% vote margin he needed to win outright and cancel Tuesday’s runoff.

“Campbell learned a lesson … that immigration is a very salient issue in this district, and it is important to talk about fairly rigorous enforcement,” DeSipio said.

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