Arizona Primary Highlights GOP's Immigration Divide

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Jim Kolbe, a moderate Republican congressman from Arizona, is retiring and has endorsed a moderate to succeed him. But Randy Graf, a hardline conservative, and a strong foe of illegal immigration, is leading in the polls for the Sept. 12 primary. The race shows how immigration is splitting the GOP, and how it could endanger the party in some congressional districts.


It's WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

Nine states hold primary elections on Tuesday, and one of the most closely watched races will be in southern Arizona's Eighth Congressional District. Republican incumbent Jim Kolbe is retiring there after 22 years. The district shares a 261-mile border with Mexico. Immigration is the issue that people are talking about, and it's especially true in the Republican primary, where a strong critic of illegal immigration just might win his party's nomination.

From member station KJZZ, Rene Gutel has a report.

RENE GUTEL: When Republican candidate Randy Graf takes a trip to the U.S./Mexico line, his first stop on the way is the All Safe Security Gun Shop in the Arizona border town Douglas. Graf walks up to the handgun counter.

Mr. RANDY GRAF (Congressional Candidate, Eighth Congressional District, Arizona): I need to get me something nice and small. Just to really carry.

GUTEL: The manager, Lynn Kartchner, hands Graf a loaded .380 caliber pistol. And with the gun in his hand, Graf discusses U.S. immigration policy.

Mr. GRAF: We need to deter their entry in the first place, never let them actually commit the crime. And I'm convinced we can - I'm convinced we can do it. No amnesty.

GUTEL: Graf says he's undecided on what gun to buy, then gets in an SUV and heads out to the desert. Standing on a dirt road, just a few feet north of some torn-up barbed wires separating the United States from Mexico, Graf says the border needs much stronger fencing and, at least in the short-term, increased military presence.

Mr. GRAF: When it comes to border security, I believe that we need to stop illegal immigration first, before we can begin to even try to worry about reforming all the other immigration issues.

GUTEL: Graf, who has the backing of the anti-illegal immigrant group the Minutemen, challenged Congressman Jim Kolbe two years ago and received 43 percent of the vote in the primary. This year, Graf becomes the candidate to beat, with four opponents splitting the moderate vote.

His leading challenger is thought to be Steve Huffman, a real estate agent and former state lawmaker. Huffman is more socially moderate than Graf, especially on issues like abortion and gay rights - and immigration.

Mr. STEVE HUFFMAN (Congressional Candidate, Eight Congressional District, Arizona): I don't think you need to militarize the border. I think what we're talking about is making sure that we've got the Border Patrol agents, the technology, fencing is appropriate in certain parts. We've got to secure our border.

GUTEL: Congressman Kolbe, who has endorsed Huffman, says he fears that if Graf wins, the party will lose a seat in November.

Representative JIM KOLBE (Republican, Arizona): My view is that Mr. Graf is just not in sync with where the district is. It's a very moderate, kind of middle-of-the-road district. He ay prevail in the primary, but he's only appealing to a very small number of Republicans voters who vote in the primary. And that's not what you need in order to win the general election.

GUTEL: National Democrats seem to agree. Needing only 15 seats to take control of the House this year, they think their best shot is if Graf wins the primary. And that may be why they're running attack ads against Steve Huffman. Huffman has countered with his own ads, linking Graf to the Democrats.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

ANNOUNCER: Why are Howard Dean's liberal Washington Democrats helping Randy Graf by falsely attacking Steve Huffman in the Republican primary? Because the Democrats want to trick you into voting for extreme candidate Graf.

GUTEL: At a political fair, on the University of Arizona campus, 21-year-old Andrew Record(ph) surveys the candidates at their different tables. Record says he voted for Congressman Kolbe two years ago, but that if Graf wins the Republican primary, he'll vote for a Democrat in November.

Mr. ANDREW RECORD (Opposes Graf): His hard-lined border stance does not resonate with most of the district. He's just far to the right.

GUTEL: But 34-year-old Kevin Failin(ph) disagrees. He's clearly in Graf's corner.

Mr. KEVIN FAILIN (Graf Supporter): I'm someone who believes that the principle matters. And I'm not willing to compromise on certain issues just because some flaming liberal might win, you know?

GUTEL: Whether or not Graf can win the primary and hold the seat in November, the primary skirmish here, if nothing else, shows that immigration remains an issue that has not only divided voters but has continued to divide the Republican Party.

For NPR News, I'm Rene Gutel.

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