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Immigration Hawks: Landing in a Gov’s Office Near You

If you thought Arizona’s Jan Brewer was a hardliner, wait until you meet these gubernatorial frontrunners.

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Tom Tancredo has told tea partiers that non-Christian immigrants should leave the country, accused Mexican border-crossers of plotting the next terrorist attack, and claimed last year that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was a member of the "Latino KKK." Having established himself as America's most infamous immigration firebrand, the former congressman hasn't left the spotlight since he departed from Capitol Hill in 2008. He's now within striking distance of the Colorado governor's mansion, having launched an improbable third-party bid against a hapless Republican candidate and an establishment Democrat.

Drawing just 9 points in the polls back in August, Tancredo has shocked political observers of all stripes staging last-minute surge in the final stretch of the election. Recent polls put him at an average of just 5 points behind his Democratic opponent, Denver mayor Dan Hickenlooper, while Republican Dan Maes is pulling single digits.

Tancredo hasn't hesitated from bringing his extreme views to the forefront: In a recent campaign ad, he accused Hickenlooper, of governing a "sanctuary city" for immigrants and contributing to the death of a local three-year-old killed by an illegal immigrant driver. Tancredo's recent comeback is particularly striking as Colorado not only flipped blue in the last presidential race, but also has a significant and expanding Latino population.

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But while Tancredo is one of the biggest flamethrowers on the issue, he isn't the only immigration hardliner with a shot at the governor's office this year. Across the country, in states with burgeoning immigrant populations, more than a half-dozen Republican gubernatorial candidates who've vowed to impose stricter controls on immigration are now poised to take office. With congressional gridlock expected to overtake Washington after the midterms, state governments will be under even greater pressure to take action on immigration, putting a new slate of anti-immigration GOP governors on the front lines of a crackdown.

In Georgia, for instance, immigration has become the centerpiece of the race: Both Democratic and Republican candidates have vowed to replicate Arizona's controversial immigration law by requiring law enforcement personnel to question crime suspects about their immigration status. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Nathan Deal, worked closely with Tancredo when the pair served together in Congress. Deal was an early supporter of a birthright citizenship bill that would deny granting citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants—a fringe idea that gained mainstream GOP credibility this year. Reprising claims that immigrants are mooching off of taxpayer-funded programs, Deal also tried in pushing through more stringent ID requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries.

"His career grade with us is an A-plus. He'll do anything that he's allowed to do to push illegal aliens out of the state," says Roy Beck, president of anti-immigration group Numbers USA, who predicts that Georgia is "one of the most likely" states to pass a law similar to Arizona's. Having vowed to enact an immigration crackdown early on in his campaign, Deal has benefited from the anxieties surrounding Georgia's immigrant community, which is one of the fastest growing in the US. He now leads his Democratic challenger, Roy Barnes, by 10 points in the latest polls.

In New Mexico and Nevada, two Latino Republican candidates have railed against their opponents for being weak on immigration, vowing to push through anti-immigration measures once they're in office. New Mexico's Susana Martinez ran a campaign ad accusing her Democratic opponent Diane Denish of offering "sanctuary for criminal illegals, like child molester Juan Gonzalez," who was charged with sexually assaulting a six-year-old. Martinez, a county attorney who established her career as a border enforcement expert, also vowed to repeal state laws allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses and free in-state tuition through a scholarship lottery. During the primary, she slammed her opponent for backing "amnesty" for having supported a George W. Bush guestworker program. Endorsed by Sarah Palin, Martinez has consistently outpolled her opponent and is now expected to become the country's first female Hispanic governor.

Similarly, Nevada's Republican candidate for governor, Brian Sandoval, has voiced vocal support for Arizona's immigration law and opposed issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Though Sandoval, born to Mexican immigrants, certainly hasn't gone as far as Sharron Angle in lashing out against Latinos and immigrants, Hispanic groups in the state were taken aback by his shift rightward on the issue. Sandoval caught even more flak after saying he wasn't worried about racial profiling under an Arizona-type law because his own children "don't look Hispanic." But Sandoval's hardline stance on the issue hasn't dragged down his poll numbers: he's leapt ahead of his opponent Rory Reid, the son of the Senate majority leader, who trails him by double digits.

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