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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

While Arizona has sparked the latest national furor over immigration policy, and Western Republican pols are dancing around the issue like it’s a bonfire (which, politically, it is), some of the most impressive and immediate repercussions have been in the Deep South, where conservatives are stampeding to express solidarity with the Arizona governor and legislature, and, in one case, to revive the English-Only chesnut. Why is that?

I’d suggest there are four inter-related factors: (1) newly visible and culturally threatening Hispanic populations, that (2) aren’t large or engaged enough to represent a significant voting presence; (3) red-hot Republican primaries; and (4) the difficulty of finding ways for Republican candidates to distinguish themselves in an atmosphere of monolithic conservatism on most issues.

It’s reasonably well understood that Hispanic immigration to the Deep South took off during the last decade. If you rank the states by the percentage increase in Hispanic population from 2000-2008, five of the top seven are in the South, with South Carolina (88.1%) ranked first, Arkansas fourth (82.1%), North Carolina fifth (79.8%), Georgia sixth (79.7%) and Kentucky seventh (76.3%). And in some states, the sheer number of Hispanics is reaching impressive heights, particularly for places with little or no prior diversity aside from African-Americans. Census estimates tell us there are now 777,000 Hispanics in Georgia, 685,000 in North Carolina, and 531,000 in Virginia.

While Hispanics are not distributed evenly in such states, nor are they disproportionately “hidden” in the anonymity of big cities. In my own home state of Georgia, it’s a rare small town that during the last decade hasn’t suddenly acquired an authentic family-owned Mexican restaurant or two, begun selling a few votive candles in convenience stores, or displayed signs and school instructional materials in Spanish. This has all happened very fast. In 1990, when visiting the north Georgia town of Gainesville, which bills itself as “The Poultry Capital of the World,” I was a bit surprised to spot a large sign at a used car dealer that simply said: Financiamos. Today Gainesville’s population is one-third Hispanic.

But even as Hispanics have become a regular (and to some, a disturbing) feature of Deep South life, they have not yet become a voting bloc significant enough to matter in all but scattered local elections. For a variety of reasons, including legal status, age, recent arrival and mobility, the percentage of southern Hispanics eligible to vote is very low. In fact, in the states of the Old Confederacy (excluding Florida and Texas), there were only two states as of 2006 in which Hispanics represented as much as 2% of eligible voters: Virginia at 2.8%, and Georgia at 2.3%. The Hispanic percentage of the population in these states in 2006 was, respectively, 6.8% and 7.4%.

So whereas in states with larger and more established Hispanic populations politicians considering anti-immigrant messages have to think seriously about blowback, there are no real negative consequences in the Deep South to offset the incentives for such rhetoric.

And not surprisingly, at least among Republicans, they are succumbing to the temptation to raise immigration as an issue in this year’s highly competitive Deep South primaries. Most notorious, so far, has been Alabama’s Tim James, for whom the pioneer of viral video, Fred Davis, prepared an ad in which the taciturn Christian Right businessman, who has been struggling to overcome Judge Roy Moore’s strength among his targeted constituency in a multi-candidate gubernatorial field, demands that driver’s tests be conducted only in English. “This is Alabama,” he says. “We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.” The ad has earned James priceless attention, and so far, his rivals have criticized him only for failing to focus on illegal immigrants rather than foreign-language-speakers generally.

At about the same time as James’ ad, another struggling Deep South gubernatorial candidate, former congressman Nathan Deal, was making support for an Arizona-style law in Georgia his signature issue. Deal is mired in third place in most polls, and is battling the bad aroma of ethics charges that helped speed his resignation from Congress earlier this year. His base region is the highly immigrant-sensitive North Georgia mountain area (which includes the aforementioned chicken-processing town of Gainesville, along with the heavily-Hispanic-staffed carpet industry), which also happens to be the most heavily Republican part of Georgia.

Deal’s gambit hasn’t spurred his rivals to follow suit just yet, but it’s likely. Secretary of State Karen Handel, who’s running just ahead of Deal in most assessments of the race, is famous for championing a tough, controversial voter ID law that was generally understood in Georgia to be aimed more at Hispanics than at the traditional target of Republican “voter fraud” alarms, African-Americans. With the entire field sounding monotonously similar on most national issues, and equally prone to indulge in Tea Party rhetoric about state sovereignty and even nullification, it’s unlikely that Deal’s opponents will give him a monopoly on the immigration issue.

Arizona Fever has spread much more rapidly in South Carolina, where at the first GOP gubernatorial candidates’ forum after the Arizona law was enacted, all four candidates called for adoption of a similar law. The most distinctive note was sounded by Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, the man who created a national stir earlier this year for comparing beneficiaries of subsidized school lunches to “stray animals” who shouldn’t be encouraged to eat (he later apologized for the “metaphor,” but not for the sentiment). Bauer took the opportunity to suggest that South Carolina wouldn’t be a magnet for illegal immigrants if lazy welfare recipients were willing to work.

Legislation modeled on Arizona’s has already been introduced in Georgia and South Carolina, where Republican legislative control makes passage realistic (though not this year, since Georgia’s legislature has already adjourned and South Carolina’s is near adjournment), and will reportedly be introduced soon in North Carolina, where the GOP is battling to gain control of the legislature. What’s entirely lacking among Republicans in any of these states is a sense of restraint in dealing with the issue.

The Alabama gubernatorial primary is on June 1; South Carolina’s is on June 8; and Georgia follows on July 20. All three states have runoff systems requiring a majority of the vote for victory in a primary, and runoffs are certain in all three Republican contests. I’d be shocked if immigration didn’t become a key issue in Alabama and Georgia (unless, as in SC, every candidate marches in lockstep in favor of a clone of the Arizona law or something even more extreme), and it could spread to the highly competitive GOP gubernatorial primary in Tennessee. And that’s not even mentioning the general election, where GOP candidates in competitive races for both federal and state office around the Deep South may well choose immigration as a classic “wedge issue.”

Does this matter nationally? I’d say so, since the identification of the GOP with crackdowns on and deportation of undocumented workers, particularly if they are accompanied by fears of large-scale ethnic profiling by law enforcement officers, could matter a great deal with Hispanic voters. As the Prop 187 experience in California showed back in the 90s, party identification with nativist impulses doesn’t always stop at state lines–and that was back before the internet made every political utterance much more fungible. Moreover, the Arizona law is arguably a lot more controversial than Prop 187, which simply sought to eliminate public benefits for undocumented workers, not herd them onto buses in leg irons for immediate deportation. Behind the scenes, GOP strategists are said to be urging their candidates not to go there.

But candidates like Tim James, Nathan Deal and Andre Bauer are probably not very worried about the possibility of the national GOP alienating Hispanic voters for years to come; they are trying desperately to win primary elections in an atmosphere of great conservative enthusiasm where it’s tough to stand out from the Obama-hating, states-rights-loving crowd. The Arizona furor gives them a weapon to use, and they’ll use it, with any negative consequences for their party elsewhere or down the road being so minor a consideration that it may not even occur to them.

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