Linda Chavez

The Republican came in third, behind both the Democratic candidate and the now Independent incumbent. It didn't help matters that the Republican admitted that as deputy sheriff he routinely fixed friends' speeding tickets, leading at least this Loudoun voter to wonder: What part of illegal didn't he understand?

Even in Prince William County, which gained national attention this summer for passing one of the toughest local anti-illegal alien measures in the country, immigration wasn't decisive. Two of the most outspoken anti-illegal members of the board of supervisors won re-election, but so did the incumbent Democratic state senator in the race, whom his opponent had tried to paint as soft on illegal immigration.

What the Virginia GOP failed to appreciate on the illegal immigration front is the difference between intensity and salience in voter behavior. Some voters are intensely angry about illegal immigration, and they tend to dominate the talk show airwaves and show up at candidate gatherings. But the number of voters for whom this is the single biggest voting issue is relatively small.

A larger group of voters may worry about the effect of illegal immigration on their communities; but when they go to the polls, other concerns trump the issue. Illegal immigration simply isn't a salient issue with most voters on Election Day.

The GOP's tough stand on immigration is a big loser with Hispanic voters, who are becoming a larger share of the electorate and whom the party had courted of late. Illegal alien bashing also appears not to have the broad appeal to other voters that some Republican strategists thought it would. If they're smart, Republican candidates will find a new issue to tie their hopes to next year.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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