Immigration Politics a Boon for Jan Brewer and John McCain

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Arizona's political landscape looks entirely different now than it did last year.

In November of 2009, four-term incumbent and former presidential candidate John McCain was neck and neck with J.D. Hayworth for the Republican Senate nomination. A Rasmussen poll pegged McCain at 45 percent and Hayworth, a talk radio host and Tea Party candidate, at 43.

Jan Brewer, meanwhile, had not even completed her first year as governor (as Arizona secretary of state, she replaced Janet Napolitano in January of 2009 when Napolitano was appointed secretary of Homeland Security). She'd already butted heads with Arizona's conservative establishment by pitching a tax increase to plug the state's deficit. Outside of Arizona, she was virtually unheard of.

Fast forward 10 months, and McCain is leading Hayworth by 20 points, and Brewer not only has a lock on the governor's race but has become a national conservative icon whose endorsement is coveted by candidates in other states. The force behind the shift? Both McCain and Brewer have expertly identified and navigated the politics of the moment: immigration control.

For Brewer, signing Arizona's tough new immigration law in April set her star on the rise. Instantly, she was all over the TV networks and conservative blogs. Her heroism within conservative circles was cemented once the Obama administration took on the law. Whining over her proposed tax hike was soon subsumed by publicity about her immigration policies. Her two most serious Republican challengers dropped out of the race and she is expected to glide to victory tomorrow.

By the time Brewer signed the law, McCain was already hard at work rebranding himself as tough on immigration. He knew the drill, having defended himself from an onslaught of conservative attacks during the 2008 Republican primary targeting his collaboration with Sen. Ted Kennedy on comprehensive immigration reform. This time around, McCain has focused on border security, supporting Brewer's law and running an ad demanding that the federal government "complete the danged fence."   

In Congress, McCain has successfully pivoted from centrist cooperator to a pain in the Obama administration's side, abandoning bipartisan collaboration on climate legislation and campaign finance reform. Outspending Hayworth by $17 million and relying on a healthy campaign infrastructure left over from his 2008 presidential bid, the senator made serious inroads with skeptical voters. In May, Rasmussen upped McCain's lead to 12 points.

Brewer and McCain have campaigned together leading up to tomorrow's primary, targeting small towns in the south of the state and talking border security. The two have proved mutually beneficial to each other. McCain, who endorsed Brewer in July, has lent legitimacy and visibility to her governor's bid, while she's gifted him some of her newcomer energy -- as well as an immigration crackdown for him to hitch his horse to.

Post-primary, neither candidate faces too much of a challenge. McCain leads his closest Democratic challenger, former Tucson Vice Mayor Rodney Glassman, by 20 points, and Brewer leads Democratic candidate Terry Goddard by 19 points. Hotline OnCall's Sean Sullivan predicts the Brewer-Goddard race will "become increasingly heated," but if Brewer manages to keep the spotlight on immigration rather than the economy, she should retain her advantage.  

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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