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In Florida, Bill McCollum's Primary Loss Shows Limits of Immigrant Bashing

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While most analysis of immigration politics has focused on Arizona lately, both parties should take note of the results of last Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary in Florida.  In states with a significant Latino presence, there is a steep price to pay for ugly immigration politics.

Here’s what happened: Attorney General Bill McCollum was the favorite in the GOP gubernatorial primary, with a moderate record on immigration and strong support from Latino Republicans.  His opponent Rick Scott, a political newcomer and self-funded multi-millionaire, decided to make a name for himself by riding the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment so popular with a segment of the Republican base.  He emphasized his strong support for an Arizona-like immigration law in Florida and painted McCollum as soft on illegal immigration.  Still, once McCollum started attacking Scott as a shady businessman, he regained the lead and was expected to win.

In what proved to be the fatal move of his campaign, McCollum introduced his own version of an Arizona-type law less than two weeks before the primary.  McCollum called on the Florida state legislature to enact it in September and bragged that the bill was tougher than Arizona’s.

Turns out, McCollum’s strategy of trying to outflank Scott on immigrant bashing backfired.  McCollum rapidly lost support from Latino leaders, and faced a backlash in the press.  On Tuesday, many Latinos in Miami-Dade County stayed home.  Turnout in what was expected to be a McCollum stronghold was less than 17%, while statewide turnout was 21%.  Scott raced over the finish line and pulled off the come-from-behind upset.

The organization I head, America’s Voice, hosted a post-election conference call to hear from a bipartisan panel of political pros as they analyzed what happened in Florida.

GOP consultant Ana Navarro, who had been an advisor to McCollum until he pandered on immigration, explained what derailed the campaign:

"It's not what (Hispanics) did against Bill McCollum; it's what they didn't do for Bill McCollum," Ana Navarro said of the veteran pol's loss to mega-wealthy newcomer Rick Scott.

Navarro who has advised leading Republicans such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. John McCain, said McCollum alienated many of his key Hispanic supporters when he hustled out proposed legislation that would crack down on illegal immigration two weeks before the election.

"He antagonized some of his top Hispanic advisers, his Hispanic voters and his Hispanic surrogates," she said, "And the backlash was perhaps much larger than what he envisioned."

As reported in the Miami Herald’s blog, Naked Politics Florida pollster Fernand Amandi said this:

"You look at a three point loss and the county with the biggest number of Hispanic Republicans being Miami-Dade underperformed," Amandi said. "Several factors were in play but how could one of them not have been the 11th hour move on immigration...which alienated a significant amount of his Hispanic Republican supporters."

Arturo Vargas of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Education Fund made it clear that immigrant bashing was not only a bad strategy for McCollum in the primary, but that it could hurt Scott in the general.

With Latinos comprising over 15 percent of the state’s voting population in 2008, as well as almost 50 percent of the recent population growth, it is dangerous and even fatal to underestimate the power of this growing voting bloc.  According to a NALEO’s recent poll 55% of Florida Latinos said that the current immigration debate made them more likely to vote in the November 2010 elections and 60% of Florida Latinos said they were certain, very likely, or somewhat likely to vote against a political party or candidate who took a disagreeable position on immigration, even if they agreed with that candidate/party on most other issues.

As the 2010 primary season wraps up, Republican candidates who tacked hard right on immigration during the primaries are struggling to figure out how to come back to the center in the general election, so they can compete for Latino and other swing voters.  Meg Whitman in California is Exhibit A, and Bill McCollum would have been Exhibit B, if he didn’t lose his shirt over the issue in the primary.

The impact of Latino voters on 2010 races will be a major storyline this cycle, as documented in an America’s Voice polling shows that many Latinos are disillusioned by the failure to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform in Congress (something that should worry the Democrats in charge of Congress and the White House), the recent controversies over the Arizona SB1070 immigration law and the way that some candidates have embraced punitive immigration policies have also re-energized many Latino voters (something that should worry the Republicans this fall and beyond).

Amandi summed up the dangers for Republican candidates during our call:

While a harsh immigration position may be a benefit in some Republican primaries in the short term, it’s bad politics for general elections and a scorched-earth strategy for the long-term.

Navarro made the stakes crystal clear when a reporter asked “What will the Sunshine State's Hispanic Republicans do in the fall campaign?”

"I have no idea," Navarro said. "A lot of us on the Republican side are asking ourselves, 'What now?'"

Cross-Posted at America's Voice.