Posted on April 24, 2000 in Washington Watch

Michigan’s Republican Senator Spencer Abraham, the only Arab American in the U.S. Senate, is fighting for his political life. First elected in 1994, Abraham’s reelection bid this November is being hotly contested and closely watched.

Opposing Abraham is not only a strong Democratic challenger, Congresswoman Debbie Stabenow, but also the U.S.’s anti-immigration lobby.

Signs of trouble first appeared for Abraham before this year’s contest began. Early last year, pollsters were showing that less than 50% of Michigan’s voters supported his reelection. Some of the Senator’s supporters have suggested that the low numbers were due to Abraham’s low key style. He has been an effective legislator and has earned support from both parties for his work. This, however, has not always translated into enhancing the Senator’s public image or his favorability rating among voters.

Now that Abraham has a Democratic opponent his problems in the polls continue. Debbie Stabenow, a two-term congresswoman has been tapped to run as her party’s nominee in November and polls show her locked in a dead even race with Abraham. Two weeks ago, she led the senator by five points. This week, Abraham is ahead by three. This lead-trading can be expected to continue. What is interesting is that both candidates, even when in the lead, never get higher than low 40 percent support—meaning 20 percent of all voters are still undecided.

Most of the issues that divide the two candidates are the traditional Republican and Democratic fare. Abraham is a fiscal conservative who supports his party’s tax cut plan. Stabenow’s views are more in line with the Democratic party’s approach to using the budget surplus to support the social security and medicare programs and to continue support for a variety of social programs.

But Abraham is facing more than just a Democratic rival. Because he chairs the Senate’s subcommittee on immigration, and is a strong supporter of legal immigration, he is being opposed by the anti-immigration lobby.

One group, in particular, the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR) has targeted Abraham for defeat and has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in TV, radio and newspaper advertising and direct mail appeals. All have been critical of Abraham.

FAIR’s specific complaints against the Senator appear on the surface to be two-fold. Abraham has supported an increase in the number of what are called H-1B visas that make it possible for U.S. industries to recruit highly skilled immigrant labor in fields where there are shortages of Americans with these skills. Abraham has also sought the repeal of Section 110 of the 1996 immigration reform bill that would have established a complicated exit-entry control system at the U.S. borders.

Both provisions have the strong support of the U.S. business community and immigrant rights organizations who argue that H-1B visas are needed to support the expansion of the U.S. economy and that Section 110 would create an unnecessary backlog at points of entry to the U.S., discouraging commerce and tourism.

While these are the nominal lines of FAIR’s attack against Abraham, their rhetoric and the group’s philosophy betray a deeper and more extreme set of issues.

FAIR’s Executive Director, Dan Stein, is from Michigan and has long been a foe of Abraham. He has been quoted referring rather crudely to the Senator as a “scum bag”. FAIR is more than an immigration reform group. It is anti-immigrant. They have declared that the optimal population of the United States should be 150 million—a reduction of 110 million. Members of their leadership have complained about the increase of “foreigners” coming into the U.S., decrying the danger immigration does to the “American way of life”.

The attacks against Abraham have been both inflammatory and racist—making a clear appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment and fear.

For example, in the direct mail piece opposing Abraham’s efforts to “kill Section 110”, FAIR featured side-by-side photos of Senator Abraham and Osama bin Laden under the headline, “Why is a U.S. Senator trying to make it easy for Osama bin Laden to export terrorism to the U.S.?”

The ad then continues to describe a number of Arab individuals who entered the U.S. and committed violent criminal acts, which FAIR suggests were only made possible because of Abraham’s lax approach to opposing terrorism.

FAIR’s efforts have spawned a number of other anti-immigrant efforts to defeat Abraham’s reelection. One of them is MICHPAC which describes itself as “a political action committee formed to expressly defeat U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham”. Betraying their blatantly racist anti-immigrant mindset is this paragraph from MICHPAC’s “Statement of Purpose”:

“Even past supporters of Abraham are dismayed at his callous attitude toward the American wage earner. They note his aggressive efforts to turn America into a third world country with the commensurate problems of overpopulation, environmental degradation, increasing income inequality, racial, religious and ethnic conflict and devaluation of the vote”.

If this were not enough, still on the horizon, is the prospect that FAIR founder Mr. John Tanton will file to run for the Michigan Senate seat as the Reform Party candidate. Since Tanton is an anti-immigrant conservative, his express purpose in running would be to take some conservative votes away from Abraham to facilitate his defeat. Tanton has decried the “Latin onslaught” threatening to take over America and has complained that too many immigrants are Catholic and, therefore, are prone to having too many children.

Spencer Abraham appears to have a difficult task before him. He must run against both a Democratic opponent and a racist anti-immigration lobby. Hopes that Stabenow would de-politicize the FAIR campaign by criticizing them were dampened last week. While the congresswoman did note that statements made by FAIR’s leaders were extreme, she stopped short of criticizing the ads, saying only that they raise issues for a “legitimate policy debate”. “I’m not going support anything that ultimately ends up displacing American workers,” she added.

What has been a positive sign, however, has been the wide range of opposition that has been mounted against the FAIR campaign. Newspaper columnists from the left to the right, editorials, religious leaders and a number of ethnic organizations have denounced the group for promoting “hateful distortions” and pursuing a “despicable” attack against Abraham. Last week, former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) resigned from FAIR’s advisory board in protest against the group’s behavior.

Abraham’s campaign has begun to fight back and is supported by efforts from some pro-immigrant groups. But the Senator faces a long and hard battle before the November election.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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