Jim Nixon, a retired Army officer and staunch conservative, has voted Republican in every presidential race since Dwight D. Eisenhower topped the ticket.
But not this time. “I’ve been a lifetime Republican, but that’s in the past. No more,” Mr. Nixon said.
Like a small but significant cluster of lifelong Republicans, the Tucson, Ariz., resident plans to make a statement by breaking with the Republican Party this year. The reason: He’s furious over President Bush’s proposal to grant resident status to illegal immigrants, known by critics as his amnesty program.
Not that Mr. Nixon plans to vote for the Democratic candidate, John Kerry.
“Kerry’s no good, and Bush isn’t good, either,” he said. “I’m going to write in a candidate, [Rep.] Tom Tancredo [Colorado Republican]. Because of his stand on immigration.”
Call them the anti-Bush Republicans: stalwart conservatives and formerly active Republicans whose anger over the party’s tolerance of illegal immigration is prompting them to throw their votes behind write-in candidates, third-party candidates—or no candidate at all.
“Right now, there are 30,000 people on our e-mail lists who are planning to write in Tom Tancredo,” said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “There’s a real grass-roots, pitchfork movement on this. This administration made a gross political miscalculation with its pandering to its cheap-labor constituency.”
But will it make a difference in November? Some analysts predict the issue could chip away enough votes from the Bush ticket to turn the tide in states like Arizona and Florida, where the candidates are locked in a dead heat and the immigration issue resonates with voters.
That may be why the White House has remained mum on the issue since Mr. Bush announced his guest-worker proposal in January. “They’re worried about their base, they’re worried about Tancredo, and they’re worried about Republicans staying home,” Mr. Stein said.
The anti-Bush Republicans didn’t switch allegiances immediately. Terry Anderson, a conservative Los Angeles radio talk-show host who focuses on immigration issues, said frustration with the party’s acceptance of the status quo—in which hundreds of thousands of illegals enter the country each year—has only recently reached the boiling point.
“At first, when I started to, you might say, bash Bush, and say how sorry I was that he was doing this, I got a lot of flak for it. People were saying, ‘Well, he’s still a good man, he’s just getting bad advice from [adviser] Karl Rove,’ “ said Mr. Anderson, whose KRLA-AM talk show is syndicated in eight markets.
“Then the calls and e-mails started to change, and people were saying, ‘Maybe you’re right,’ “ he said. “Now I hear from Republicans all day long who are totally against him. These are staunch, hard-core conservative Republicans who do not like him [Bush] anymore.”
At the same time, they don’t see the Democratic Party as a viable alternative. “Some are becoming independent, some are just saying, ‘I’ll stay Republican, but I won’t vote for this clown,’ “ Mr. Anderson said.
Republican strategists are betting that the vast majority of GOP voters, even those from border states, will look beyond the immigration issue and cast their votes based on higher-profile issues.
“I don’t think this issue is going to carry a large sway with voters in California,” California GOP spokeswoman Karen Hanretty said. “At the end of the day, the two issues that are going to matter the most in California are the ones that matter the most everywhere else: homeland security and the economy.”
The best test of the issue’s power may come in Arizona, where a measure to deny state services to illegal immigrants is likely to appear on the November ballot. The initiative, Proposition 200, is favored by a stunning 74 percent of voters, according to a recent poll by Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.
Pollster Bruce Merrill doesn’t think that anger over illegal immigration will translate into fewer votes for Mr. Bush. “That’s a big issue with right-wing, religious-right conservatives,” he said. “But where’s the right wing going to go? They’re not going to vote for Kerry. There’s nowhere else to go.”
Not so, says Helen Campbell, an East Texas homemaker and self-described “faithful conservative voter” who supported Mr. Bush in 2000. This time, she says, she’ll pick a third-party candidate or write in a name.
“I may be throwing away a vote, but I can’t in good conscience vote for either Bush or Kerry,” she said.
The same goes for Joe McCutchen, a fourth-generation Republican, who says he won’t vote for either Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry.
“I’ve voted straight Republican ticket all my life,” said Mr. McCutchen, who founded the Health Depot pharmaceutical chain. “But this lesser-of-two-evils thing doesn’t cut it any more. There’s no way I’d vote for George Bush unless he’d secure our borders immediately.”
The Border Patrol recently reported that rumors of amnesty caused a surge in illegal immigration from Mexico in the wake of Mr. Bush’s Jan. 7 guest-worker proposal.
A resident of Fort Smith, Ark., Mr. McCutchen recently put up two billboards with the message, “Deport Bush and Kerry and the 12 million illegal Mexicans.” In previous years, he would have been called “a racist and a xenophobe,” he says, but now he’s finding support.
“There are lots of people like me, and they’re beginning to speak out,” he said.
One of those is Virginia Abernathy, a professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. A lifelong Republican, she served as a delegate to the 1996 GOP convention.
But she’s not voting for Mr. Bush in November, she says, saying she fears a second term would be “the ruination of the Republican Party for years.”
“There’s so much opposition to what he’s doing on immigration, and it’s so costly to the country—it’s a budget buster on top of all his other budget busters,” said Miss Abernathy, who recently agreed to serve as chair of Protect Arizona Now’s national advisory committee.
“This country greatly needs to stop mass illegal immigration, and I know many conservatives who feel the same way,” she said.