10.26.10

Immigration Hawk Could Win

Tom Tancredo, America’s loudest immigration hawk, is within a few points of becoming Colorado’s next governor. Bryan Curtis on how he married anti-immigrant fervor to the Tea Party.

Tom Tancredo, America’s loudest immigration hawk, is within a few points of becoming Colorado’s next governor. Bryan Curtis on how he married anti-immigrant fervor to the Tea Party. Plus, the Election Oracle on Tancredo's odds of winning.

Let’s stipulate that at least one wild and inexplicable event will occur on Election Night. Here’s a nominee: Tom Tancredo, a man whose immigration rhetoric was so rough that he was banned from the Bush White House, becomes governor of Colorado.

“We feel fantastic,” Bay Buchanan, Tancredo’s campaign manager, said Tuesday. “We’ve gone from 14 points in August to the low 40s now. It’s a climb of nearly 30 points in a couple months.”

This is Posturing Week in American politics, and all numbers tend to be highly bogus. But in a year in which immigration has captured the public imagination, the notion of Governor Tancredo is gaining currency. An October 25 Public Policy Polling survey showed Tancredo three points behind the Democratic candidate, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. That tracks with a Republican poll last week that showed Tancredo trailing by just one point among likely voters. A Denver Post poll from the weekend showed Hickenlooper with a 10-point lead.

The funny thing is, Tancredo isn’t even the Republican nominee. He’s running on the ticket of the American Constitution Party. That he’s standing on the doorstep of the governor’s mansion is due to a string of GOP implosions. First, likely GOP nominee Scott McInnis got caught in a plagiarism scandal and fell to Dan Maes, a Tea Party-backed candidate. In short order, the Denver Post accused Maes of fudging his resume; he claimed to have worked undercover with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Maes is now polling in the single digits.

“McInnis was imploding in July, Maes was imploding in August,” Buchanan said. “It didn’t stop!

That left Tancredo as the only viable conservative. And what a conservative! Tancredo’s campaign recalls a European anti-immigrant crusader refashioning himself as a general-election force—Jean-Marie Le Pen comes to Colorado.

"I still wouldn’t bet my house on it," one anti-immigration activist said of Tancredo’s chances, "but I might bet lunch on it."

Since he was elected to the U.S. House in 1998, Tancredo has been the most famous immigration hawk in America, the GOP base’s anti-immigrant id. “He was a high-visibility voice on the immigration issue,” said former Representative Duncan Hunter, one of Tancredo’s House colleagues. But Tancredo’s omnipresence on TV shout-fests obscured the fact that he was an outsider even in his own party. When he suggested that the Bush administration’s border-security policies could allow another terrorist attack, Karl Rove, in Tancredo’s florid telling, called the congressman a “traitor” and told him “never again to darken the doorstep of the White House.”

At the February Tea Party Convention, Tancredo mourned that "we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country,” a remark that offended a number of attendees. To see him win in a state in which Latinos make up 20 percent of the population and in which Democrats planted their flag at their 2008 convention would be a staggering blow to both.

When Tancredo announced his quixotic run, even some of his immigration allies worried he’d be a punch line, another Kucinich. “When Tom decided to run, I thought it was an ill-considered decision, honestly,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. “I didn’t think there was much of chance of it.”

“As a guy would love to see that immigration position prevail in Colorado, I never gave it a chance,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, an organization that wants to reduce immigration. “Not a chance.”

Now, Krikorian said of Tancredo’s bid, “I still wouldn’t bet my house on it, but I might bet lunch on it.”

Tancredo owes his rise to two factors. First, Maes’ fall transformed Tancredo from third-party pariah into conservatives’ only hope. The Tancredo operation has been exuberant since last month’s endorsement by Bob Beauprez, a former Republican congressman. “That broke the dam,” Buchanan said, “and told Republicans it was okay to go with the third party this year.”

Second, Tancredo has pulled off the same gambit that candidates like Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Louisiana’s David Vitter have managed. He has fused his classic anti-immigrant rhetoric with Tea Party rhetoric. “We have three issues,” Buchanan said. “Cut spending, cut taxes, and stop illegal immigration cold.”

On the one hand, Candidate Tancredo can sound a lot like Congressman Tancredo. He made common cause with the Colorado woman who said her husband was murdered by Mexican pirates, and slammed Hickenlooper for presiding over a sanctuary city. The homepage of Tancredo’s website Tuesday featured an ad that had a man, Marat Kudlis, talking about how his three-year-old son was killed when an illegal immigrant crashed his car into a Baskin-Robbins. “Try to sleep at night knowing your policy contributed to his death,” Kudlis tells Hickenlooper.

On the other hand, you have Tancredo carefully threading his anti-immigrant rhetoric into the larger theme of government spending. He has charged that immigrants increase the need for social services, thus growing state and local government. You can dispute the premise, but the effect is the immigration restrictionist sounds like he’s sticking up for the little guy. “Tom Tancredo’s immigration positions are populist, they’re not corporate,” said Roy Beck. “And that’s exactly where the Tea Party is.”

Election Oracle: Colorado Governor’s RaceThe campaign has a surreal air. Bay Buchanan, a veteran of her brother Pat’s presidential bids, said she has “probably five” paid staffers. She was making do with homemade signs because she didn’t want to spend $8,000 dollars on pre-printed ones. Buchanan said the campaign first focused on taking out the Republican Maes and now focused taking out Hickenlooper, who has run a positive campaign that has mostly ignored Tancredo.

On Tuesday, Team Tancredo got a gift--the gaffe they’d been waiting for. National Review Online had unearthed an interview in which Hickenlooper, speaking about Matthew Shepard’s murder, said some Coloradans suffered from “backwards thinking.” Buchanan was gleeful. “Perfectly well-timed, in my opinion,” she said. “That will be all over rural Colorado by tomorrow afternoon.” If the campaign succeeded, Tom Tancredo would no longer be just an unrepentant immigration hawk but a full-blown man of the people.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.