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In Florida, Bill McCollum’s Primary Loss Shows Limits of Immigrant Bashing

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While most analysis of immigration politics has focused on Arizona lately, both parties should take note of the results of last Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary in Florida.  In states with a significant Latino presence, there is a steep price to pay for ugly immigration politics.

Here’s what happened: Attorney General Bill McCollum was the favorite in the GOP gubernatorial primary, with a moderate record on immigration and strong support from Latino Republicans.  His opponent Rick Scott, a political newcomer and self-funded multi-millionaire, decided to make a name for himself by riding the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment so popular with a segment of the Republican base.  He emphasized his strong support for an Arizona-like immigration law in Florida and painted McCollum as soft on illegal immigration.  Still, once McCollum started attacking Scott as a shady businessman, he regained the lead and was expected to win.

In what proved to be the fatal move of his campaign, McCollum introduced his own version of an Arizona-type law less than two weeks before the primary.  McCollum called on the Florida state legislature to enact it in September and bragged that the bill was tougher than Arizona’s.

Turns out, McCollum’s strategy of trying to outflank Scott on immigrant bashing backfired.  McCollum rapidly lost support from Latino leaders, and faced a backlash in the press.  On Tuesday, many Latinos in Miami-Dade County stayed home.  Turnout in what was expected to be a McCollum stronghold was less than 17%, while statewide turnout was 21%.  Scott raced over the finish line and pulled off the come-from-behind upset.