Oct 11, 2012 -- There's no state where immigration is a more potent political issue than Arizona.
The economy, housing and healthcare still stand as leading issues in the state, but immigration has taken on a special importance due to the state's aggressive efforts to clamp down on immigration enforcement, including its controversial "papers please" law and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's raids in Latino communities.
Terry Greene Sterling notes in The Atlantic that these once-championed efforts are falling out of favor. One of the main reasons why is the anticipated political awakening of long-dormant Latino communities, which could make the longtime red state competitive at the national level.
One recent sign of that is the state's surprisingly competitive Senate race between Republican Jeff Flake and Democrat Richard Carmona. The contest has all the trappings of a hard fought campaign: dueling internal polls, ferocious attack ads, closely watched debates.
Carmona has helped build a viable campaign in large part with the help of Latino voters. And on Wednesday, he echoed one of the community's main critiques of his own party: They haven't done enough in Washington to pass immigration reform."They screwed up. They screwed up, there is no question and I'm not going to try to defend them," he said during a debate with Flake hosted by the Arizona Republic. "I wouldn't have supported that."
In tone, the comment makes Carmona sound like the independent-minded candidate he considers himself. But in reality, the comment is a call to Latino voters and immigration activists who are not only frustrated with what's going on in Arizona, but the lack of progress on immigration legislation at the federal level.
Carmona also went after Flake, accusing him of being a "flip-flopper" on the issue. Flake once sponsored comprehensive immigration reform legislation. The Republican congressman still says the country needs comprehensive reform, but only after the border is secure.
"No one will trust the federal government on the other items," unless that is done, Flake said. He called his stance "a bow to reality."
Flake said once the border is secure, he would look back at legislation he once sponsored. The legislation would have cut back on deportations, while providing some undocumented immigrants the chance to obtain U.S. citizenship if they take a series of steps, including going to the back of the line, the Republic reported. Carmona wants to push ahead with comprehensive reform.
So far, Carmona's posture appears to be helping him among Latino voters. He has a 75-12 percent lead among Arizona Latino voters, according to a survey sponsored by the political opinion research firm Latino Decisions on behalf of America's Voice, a liberal group that lobbies for immigration reform.
It's still uncertain whether Latinos will show up to the polls in great enough numbers to shift the race this year. Latinos are nearly 30 percent of the population now; two years ago, however, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry Goddard won 71 percent of the Latino vote but still lost to Republican Jan Brewer, the godmother of the SB 1070 law.
So while we don't know yet whether Democrats can muster a win based on the state's demographic changes, Latino voters are helping make it close as the campaign enters its final stretch.