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Can GOP win without Hispanics? Look at Arizona

Thursday - 4/4/2013, 12:52pm  ET

FILE - In this June 5, 2010, file photo Judy Schulz, center, cheers as her husband Richard Schulz, left, both of Glendale, Ariz., joined hundreds supporting Arizona's new law on illegal immigration as they listen to speakers near the capitol in Phoenix. On the political map of the southwest, Arizona stands out. Most of its neighbors _ California, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada _ are independent-minded states that once leaned Republican but are trending Democratic, partly because of increasing numbers of Hispanic voters alienated from the GOP by its tough stance on illegal immigration. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) -- On the political map of the Southwest, Arizona stands out.

Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico are independent-minded states that once leaned Republican but are trending Democratic, partly because of increasing numbers of Hispanic voters alienated from the GOP by its tough stance on illegal immigration.

California, a GOP bastion for decades, is now solidly Democratic and the ultimate example of the dangers for Republicans on this issue.

Nowhere is a harder line on immigration taken than in Arizona, where Republicans have a lock on statewide offices and dominate the Legislature.

In November, Democrats picked up two congressional seats, but Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney easily won the state with a slightly better margin against President Barack Obama than Arizona Sen. John McCain posted in the 2008 White House contest.

That record has led advocates of tighter immigration restrictions to point to Arizona as a model for how Republicans can maintain their tough stance on the issue and still win elections.

"It's an example of a different way for things to play out than the conventional story," Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors tighter immigration policies, said of Arizona. "What's happened there is the non-Hispanic vote has become increasingly Republican."

National Republicans, aware of demographic trends, are pondering how to win over more Hispanic voters in order to be more competitive in presidential elections. It's unclear whether Arizona will remain a GOP stronghold.

Plenty of Arizona Republicans fear their state will go the way of its neighbors unless the GOP softens its immigration stance. That includes McCain, who in 2005 joined with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to sponsor legislation that included a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.

A staunch supporter of strict border enforcement in 2008 and 2010, McCain has swung back after last year's election to supporting an overhaul of the immigration system that includes citizenship for those in the U.S. without authorization. He says he was convinced the GOP could not survive with a hard-line stance in states like his.

"If you have a large bloc of Americans who believe you're trying to keep their ... fellow Hispanics down and deprive them of an opportunity, obviously that's going to have an effect," McCain told reporters earlier this year.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Romney called for "self-deportation," or creating an environment so uncomfortable for immigrants here illegally that they would choose to return to their original countries. Romney also praised Arizona's approach to immigration.

Two years earlier, the state became well-known for restrictive immigration legislation with the passage of legislation requiring police officers, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally. While that part of the statute survived, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down three other provisions of the law.

Arizona's stance has national implications as leading Republicans try to reorient their party following the 2012 election, when Hispanics, African-Americans and Asians went for Obama in overwhelming numbers.

A Republican National Committee panel recently released a report that advises more outreach to minorities and support for an immigration overhaul that eventually would legalize the status of most immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. That's an idea that's anathema to some Arizona Republicans.

A bipartisan group of eight senators, including McCain and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. -- is drawing up a bill that includes such a provision.

Arizona was always one of the less-promising states for Democrats for reasons other than immigration, said Scott Smith, the Republican mayor of Mesa, a Phoenix suburb.

"You have a lot of retirees in Arizona -- Midwestern, conservative Republicans," he said. "Republicans far outnumber Democrats in registration, and the independents tend to be conservative more than liberal."

President Bill Clinton helped make immigration a major issue in Arizona.

In an attempt to tamp down illegal immigration in California, his administration fortified the border with Mexico in the late 1990s.

The bolstered enforcement effectively pushed migrants east into the mostly empty desert that straddles Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora.

As crossing into the U.S. became harder, drug cartels and criminal syndicates expanded into human trafficking, with Phoenix becoming a major hub. The federal government warned Arizonans to stay out of various parks and swaths of public land for fear they could stumble across armed smugglers. There was widespread fear.

"That entire impact just changed the way undocumented immigrants were seen in Arizona," said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Democratic president of the state Senate and an immigrant rights activist. "It raised all kinds of opportunities for people to exploit this."

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