Can Conservative Talk Radio Derail Immigration Reform—Again?

A coordinated push in 2007 helped to stop a bill, but the landscape has changed drastically in the last six years.
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It's odd standing in the middle of a dozen talk-radio hosts, all broadcasting from the same hotel ballroom. From the outset, it's just a dozen people talking (or ranting) to themselves. But you know hundreds of thousands are listening. Walking down the row of hosts on Wednesday was like strolling through a sliding radio dial on a conservative-only frequency. Snippets of chatter fade in and out:

"Where's the violence from the Tea Party?" ... "Has he visited the survivors of Benghazi yet?"... "And Janet Napolitano's been lying her ass off."

The hosts were just a few feet from one another, separated by red-velvet curtains in the hotel just blocks from the Capitol. It didn't seem impossible for one broadcaster's voice to be in the background of another's show.

This was the Federation for American Immigration Reform's seventh-annual "Hold Their Feet to the Fire," radio row. Forty-six conservative talk-show hosts, from media markets across the nation, came to this hotel to discuss (or eviscerate) the bipartisan immigration-reform bill that was unveiled at 2 a.m. Wednesday. The billseeks to give a path to legal residency and eventual citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, provided that certain border-security conditions are met.

Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA, a group that seeks to bring immigration to pre-1965 levels, comes every year. This year, he was making the rounds to 10 radio stations.

"It's a little bit like being at a day labor site," he said, describing the event.

"Or like speed dating?" I asked.

"It is like speed dating, that's true," he said. "But it is like a day labor site, you're just there. The little pickup truck drives by. Drives real slowly. And I go, 'I'm available! I'm cheeep!'"

FAIR provides a corral of guests like Beck -- heads of interest groups, border-town sheriffs, ranchers, and some congressional representatives (Marco Rubio made an appearance Thursday)--available for the radio show's disposal. While FAIR doesn't mandate the hosts talk to anyone in particular, the forum allows for a consistent message. And their intentions are clear: "Our view is that we would like to know as much about this proposal as possible, and we would like to defeat it early on," FAIR President Dan Stein said.

Sheriff Paul Babeu of Arizona is one of more popular guests in the stable. Babeu -- you may recall -- provided one of the more interesting side stories of the 2012 election. He stepped down from cochairing Romney's campaign in Arizona and eventually his congressional bid after allegations that he had threatened a former male lover with deportation. He has denied this.

In uniform, with big gold "SHERIFF" pins on his shirt collars, he said he was scheduled to talk to 30 radio hosts. As a sheriff in a county near the Mexican border, he has become a totemic critic of the Homeland Security Department. "What we want out of this is a secure border that protects our state, protects our country," he said. "As recent as this week that we had large groups of 100-plus [border crossers] that we haven't seen for years. That's a clue that the reason what's happening is because of the prospect of amnesty, the prospect of a path to citizenship."

His voice, his opinion as a border-area sheriff, would reach hundreds of thousands. "Literally I can go from one interview to the next," he said, "Talk to somebody in Alabama, talk to somebody in Virginia, and then talk to somebody in Phoenix. You can't do that normally. Now we have a nucleus to get this information out in a coordinated effort."

****

There's a bit of déjà vu here. Or a least a déjà vu FAIR would like to recreate. In the summer of 2007, such a coordinated effort among talk-radio hosts killed a George W. Bush-backed, bipartisan immigration deal that was gaining momentum in Congress.

"The conservative hosts really did make a crusade," Mark Jurkowitz, a media researcher with Pew, said. "It's hard to quantify how many [senators'] votes were changed in 2007, I don't know. But I do know the talk hosts -- and probably no one more so than Rush Limbaugh -- are very capable of motivating their listeners to make calls about a certain issue." (Limbaugh was not present at the FAIR event. It was mostly regional outlets.)

During the lead up to the vote in the Senate, immigration was the No. 1 story across mediums. It amounted to 9 percent of the news hole, a slightly higher share than the burgeoning presidential race. But conservative talk radio took it to the next level--immigration made up 31 percent of their coverage.

Trent Lott, the Republican Senate whip in 2007, received a lot of those calls from talk-radio listeners. "I've had my phones jammed for three weeks," he told The Washington Post at the time. "Talk radio is running America," he lamented after the bill's defeat. "We have to deal with that problem."

But it's not 2007. There's a growing libertarian bent in the Republican Party, a bent that might favor a freer flow of labor. Then there's Marco Rubio, a "Gang of Eight" member and rising conservative star. While his legislation is not finding favor among the talk-radio hosts, he still holds their respect.

And while Pew no longer collects week-by-week data on news coverage, it doesn't take a survey to know immigration is not the top story. That was apparent just walking around the broadcast stations. Much of the talk was about Boston.

"Obviously the attention is going to be there and should be there," Helen Glover, a Rhode Island-area host (and former Survivor contestant) said. "It's a balance, because we're so close to Boston, it needs to have equal amount. We try to weave them both in at the same time."

"I'm afraid [immigration] is going to be subdued," she said.

And then, it was like a talk news broadcast for one.

"As Rahm Emanuel said, never let a good crisis goes to waste .... Does this mean you go ahead and start this discussion now without giving Boston the respect it deserves? It's not the time to be putting this information out, or God forbid, scheduling hearings."

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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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