Issue has yet to sink in to most primary battles
There's something missing from almost all of this year's political campaign ads in Oregon — the sizzling-hot immigration issue.
Two years ago, commercials targeting illegal immigrants permeated the airwaves in the state.
One of those ads was by Republican gubernatorial challenger Ron Saxton.
In his television commercials, Saxton told voters that "under (Gov.) Ted Kulongoski, Oregon gives driver's licenses to illegal aliens, who use them to get state services and even vote."
A separate ad by Saxton blamed Kulongoski for immigrants illegally migrating to the state, despite Saxton's admission that he could not say with all certainty that his cherry farm in Rickreall had not employed or housed undocumented farmworkers.
That same year, Republican candidate Mike Erickson, who was running for the 5th Congressional District seat at the time and is doing so again this election year, told constituents in an ad that "illegal aliens overwhelm our schools and jails."
A number of other candidates also inundated voters with commercials that featured the specter of undocumented people crawling over barbed-wire fences or walking or running across the U.S.-Mexico border.
At times, candidates even challenged one another's credentials as defenders of citizens against illegal immigrants at rallies and other gatherings.
But this election year is different.
For all the heat and fury illegal immigration stirred in the past, the full depth of the issue has yet to sink in to most of this year's primary elections.
So what put the kibosh on the volatile topic?
Some political experts say it's strategy, coupled with the issue not being a top-ranking concern for the majority of Oregonians.
"While there was a lot of noise in the last election on the issue, particularly as it related to Republican candidates, the reality is that when push came to shove, it didn't, frankly, seem to have that much bite at the ballot box," said Tim Hibbitts, a pollster with Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall, a polling firm in Portland.
Bill Lunch, a political scholar and strategist at Oregon State University, disagreed, saying this year's relatively tranquil campaign ads have to do with the solid defeats voters handed immigration restrictionists in Oregon and across the nation.
"Evidence of that can be seen in Democrats taking control of the Oregon House, which Republicans had held for 16 years," Lunch said. "Democrats also made some considerable gains in the Oregon Senate."
Nationally, Democrats took control of both chambers of Congress, after 12 years of nearly unbroken Republican rule.
Hibbitts said he disagrees with the notion that voters punished candidates who took a punitive stance on illegal immigration during the 2006 campaigns.
"Candidates thought immigration was going to be more salient at the ballot box, and it wasn't," he said, "so politicians have moved on to other issues they think will resonate with voters."
He said that like in the last election, polls this year show that the majority of Oregonians are more concerned about the economy, the Iraq war, health care and education than they are with illegal immigration.
Polls also show that the majority of the public general favors a tough, but not punitive, approach to the illegal immigration problem and supports a path toward citizenship for those already in the nation, provided they meet certain requirements, Lunch said.
"Candidates have consultants who point out those factors to them," he said. "I'm sure their consultants have told them that playing the immigration card would not be a wise idea, at least until after the primaries."
At that point, Oregonians are likely to see immigration ads reach the same heights as in the last election, he said.
Although candidates have not campaigned on the illegal-immigration issue so far, it hasn't exactly gone into complete hibernation.
At least one candidate, Mike Erickson, is publicly pushing the issue.
In ads running on television, YouTube and his campaign Web site, Erickson reiterates his message of two years ago.
In the ad, he tells his voters of the 5th Congressional District that "getting control of the border is not just a national security issue, it's an economic issue. I say 'no' to amnesty. I say 'no' to government handouts to illegals."
Repeated calls to Erickson's campaign office were not returned.
Democratic candidate Steve Marks, who also is vying for the 5th Congressional District spot, isn't running any illegal-immigration ads and doesn't plan to do so.
But he says immigration is a key issue for most voters in the district.
"The majority of people recognize that immigration is important to our economy," Marks said. "They want a practical solution to immigration; they want us to take action; and they want us to get it off the plate.
"But it certainly isn't the highly emotional issue with voters that some make it out to be."