Jan Brewer: Fleeting Celebrity or Here to Stay?

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In a year of fierce re-election battles, one incumbent governor does not have much to worry about. Arizona's Jan Brewer, the Republican secretary of state who assumed the governorship by default after Janet Napolitano became Homeland Security secretary, carries a 19-point lead over Democratic challenger Terry Goddard. Brewer was not a well-known political figure before she became governor, and the state's Republican establishment shunned her after she proposed a sales tax increase two months into her term. Voters were not thrilled either, and a Rasmussen poll from March had her trailing Goddard 36 to 45.

But that was before she became the nation's conservative leader on immigration. On April 23, Brewer signed SB 1070, Arizona's explosive immigration law that requires police officers to demand the immigration papers of anyone they suspect is in the country illegally. Since then, she's become a Tea Party and Fox News hero, and her battle with the Obama administration over the law has become daily prime time fodder. A Rasmussen poll from last week has her leading Goddard 56 to 37, and she has made high-profile endorsements of candidates in other key Republican primaries, her support often listed next to that of Sarah Palin.

Though Brewer may be primed for a win in November, how relevant is her recent rise to the national GOP? A CBS poll from July found that 57 percent of Americans support the Arizona immigration law, but the issue gets much more political play in border states than it does in the rest of the country. Could Brewer's sudden celebrity translate to a national political future somewhere down the line, à la Palin, or is she destined to fade away once the immigration controversy dies down?

Alfredo Rodriguez*, vice president of Republican strategy firm Marsh Copsey + Associates, attributes "100 percent" of Brewer's recent rise to the immigration law.

"If you would have said a year ago that a Republican pushing for a sales tax increase would have prevailed in a Republican primary," Rodriguez says, "the public would have laughed at you." Rodriguez thinks that immigration is an easier issue to take a stance on in Republican primaries, when you're targeting an electorate with pretty conservative views on the issue. In that case, Brewer's endorsement is valuable. But for general elections, immigration "tends to be a different hurdle to overcome ... people begin to perceive you as not liking people of certain ethnicities."   

Rodriguez points to former California Governor Pete Wilson, who won re-election in 1994 on the back of a ballot measure to deny social services to illegal immigrants. Although the measure was popular at the time, it was eventually ruled unconstitutional and Wilson was credited with building California's enduring Democratic majority. His presidential campaign in 1996 lasted all but a month.

As for Brewer's shot at a national political campaign, Rodriguez thinks it's too early to tell.

"I certainly think while at least in the immediate future people are overlooking her record on taxes, he says, "if she were to try to launch a national campaign, your typical taxpayer advocacy groups would quickly remind people that while she was popular because of the immigration law and took a bold stand, this is a governor in what is typically a Republican state who chose to raise taxes to balance the budget."

But whether or not she becomes a national player, Brewer has changed the landscape for this year's Republican candidates.

"Republicans in primaries will have to address the Arizona law," Rodriguez says. "It's one of those issues, similar to abortion, where you can't really kind of play both sides. You're going to upset one side or the other." Rodriguez thinks that most Republican candidates will end up hoping the law doesn't come up, but supporting it if it does -- thereby opening the door for Democratic attacks in the fall aimed at Hispanic voters.


*This article formerly referred to Alfredo Rodriguez as Alfredo Gonzales. The author regrets the error. 

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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