Whether they want to talk about immigration or not, for California candidates on both sides of the aisle, it will likely be a central part of November’s election.
For many state and local seats, the conversation will hinge on California’s so-called “sanctuary law,” which went into effect at the beginning of January and limits interaction between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials.
Though the California Values Act, or S.B. 54, came from the state legislature, it may also impact local races as cities and counties have signed on to each side of a Trump administration lawsuit over the issue.
Republicans hope to turn out voters who want to get rid of the law. Tony Krvaric, chairman of the Republican Party of San Diego County, said he’s advising GOP candidates to go after the sanctuary law and the gas tax as their main platforms for November.
Krvaric, who immigrated from Sweden and became a U.S. citizen, said there’s a difference between being anti-immigrant and not wanting to protect “criminal illegal aliens.”
“Republicans are so often afraid where Democrats have been effective using this as a cudgel,” Krvaric said, referring to immigration. “Republicans didn’t want to talk about it because who wants to be anti-immigrant. The public is waking up now and seeing a distinction.”
John Cox, the Republican candidate for governor, promised in his speech Tuesday night that repealing S.B. 54 would be one of the first things he does in office.
“It wasn’t Donald Trump that passed the sanctuary state law,” Cox said, addressing his Democratic opponent Gavin Newsom directly. “You’re the one that’s protecting MS-13 and making communities and families in our state less safe.”
Democrats hope that associating their Republican opponents with President Donald Trump will keep their advantage in the governor’s mansion and the state legislature. Rising anger over stories of families being separated at the border may give them an edge, but they’re less likely to talk about sanctuary law unless they’re asked about it.
Newsom, favored to win the governor’s race in strongly left-leaning California, didn’t mention S.B. 54 in his election night speech. He did reference family separation in a dig at the Trump administration.
“We invest in children, Jeff Sessions,” Newsom said. “We don’t tear them from the loving arms of their mothers and their fathers.”
For either side, how significant the issue will be depends on what happens between now and November, analysts said. A high-profile crime where the suspect is an unauthorized immigrant or a spotlighted deportation case that raises humanitarian questions could be enough to sway voters in battleground districts.
Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego, said he was surprised that immigration didn’t come up more during the primary, given its significance during the presidential election in 2016.
“The only person who wholeheartedly embraced it was Kristin Gaspar, and look what that got her,” Kousser said.
Gaspar, a county supervisor, pushed San Diego County to join the Trump lawsuit against California over S.B. 54 during her election campaign. She joined Trump at the White House for a round table on the issue.
In her bid to replace Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, Gaspar garnered less than nine percent of the vote as of Friday’s count, putting her in fifth behind Republican Diane Harkey and three Democrats.
Harkey has campaigned with increased border security messaging but also wants to implement more work visa programs. She said immigration would be an important topic on both sides going into November.
On the other end of the immigration debate, state Senator Kevin De León, author of S.B. 54, won just over 11 percent of the vote in his race for U.S. Senate, coming in second behind fellow Democrat and incumbent Dianne Feinstein, who won almost 44 percent of the vote.
“It didn’t cost him, but it certainly didn’t catapult him into relevance,” Kousser said of De León’s work on the controversial legislation.
Talking about immigration could lose undecided centrist voters for either party, Kousser said. He anticipated that in districts with stronger leanings in one direction or the other, the issue would come out more before November, but that economic issues would take precedence in tight races.
Jack Pitney, politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, said that California Attorney General Xavier Becerra did benefit from emphasizing his record on immigration as a leading opponent to Trump.
He predicted that immigration would be one of the top five issues in November behind several relating to voters’ wallets, like housing costs.
How many voters from the Latino community, which often has reportedly low turnout, go to the polls in the fall could make a difference in how important immigration issues are on Election Day. Preliminary analyses from UC Los Angeles Latino Policy and Politics Initiative suggest that Latino voters did show up at a higher rate than they did for the 2014 primary, at least in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Andrea Guerrero of Alliance San Diego said not enough of San Diego County’s votes have been tallied to look at trends among specific voting groups.
Marggie Castellano, a Democrat who is running against incumbent Republican Patricia Bates for a state Senate seat that represents parts of northern San Diego County and southern Orange County, said she hopes to focus on environmental, education and housing issues instead of immigration.
Voters have asked her if she supports S.B. 54, she said, and her answer is yes. To explain why, she pulls out a copy of the bill.
“I show them the number and the pages where it’s written — you can see clearly that the criminals will still be in jail and will still be prosecuted,” said Castellano, who immigrated from Peru and became a U.S. citizen. “When I show them on paper, they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that. I haven’t read the bill.'”
Her opponent Bates voted against S.B. 54. Bates probably won’t focus on the sanctuary issue, according to Dave Gilliard, a Bates campaign consultant, but will likely talk about aspects of border security in addition to economic issues and the gas tax.
Elizabeth Warren, one of two Democrats likely to face off for a formerly Republican Assembly seat, will be more vocal than Castellano about immigration issues. She wants to add to S.B. 54 and further limit federal immigration officials’ access to state databases. She also criticized politicians from both sides who take money from for-profit prison companies that run many of the nation’s immigration detention centers.
“Profiting from human suffering is something that I find to be immoral,” Warren said. “If you want to tie everything together under one umbrella for me whether it’s immigration or any other issue, it comes down to people versus the greed of the most affluent and the biggest corporations.”
Warren’s likely opponent Tasha Boerner Horvath was unavailable for comment prior to publication.
Results for San Diego Congressional races outside of the 49th district where Harkey is running seem to be largely one-sided. Candidates hoping to close the gap in November said they plan to bring up a range of immigration issues like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, and Trump’s promised border wall.
Morgan Murtaugh, a Republican candidate hoping to challenge Susan Davis, D-San Diego, in the fall, said she’s been meeting with Border Patrol agents to make a comprehensive immigration plan.
“Something that really infuriates me on both sides of the aisle is we’ve been talking about immigration reform for years now, and nothing has happened,” Murtaugh said.
Murtaugh wants to create a pathway to permanent residency — not citizenship — for unauthorized immigrants while bolstering border enforcement.
Davis, meanwhile, said voters in her district are worried about what will happen to DACA recipients and what is happening to families at the border.
“We can deal with this,” Davis said. “We can solve this if people would come together and work on these issues.”
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