SAN FRANCISCO—Tucked into last week’s otherwise predictable California election results lay a cautionary tale about the election year’s most uncovered issue: illegal immigration.
Republican Rep. David Dreier, the 24-year Los Angeles-area veteran who chairs the powerful House Rules committee, won re-election to his House seat with just under 54 percent of the vote, down from 64 percent in 2002. His Democratic opponent, Cynthia Matthews, won almost 43 percent of the vote, despite spending just over $31,000 in her campaign, compared to more than $900,000 spent by Dreier. A Libertarian candidate won 3.5 percent of the vote.
While Dreier’s winning margin over Matthews can’t really be characterized as close, it was his worst showing since 1980, when he was first elected by beating a Democratic incumbent. It was this year’s closest congressional race involving an incumbent running for re-election in California, and even Dreier called himself “humbled” by the outcome at his victory speech on election night.
While the 52-year old Dreier wields extraordinary power on Capitol Hill, he is also a political Zelig with a talent for landing in the middle of everything that matters. He is well known to many people, constituents and others, as a telegenic talking head who pops up regularly on cable news talk shows, sometimes seeming to be on more than one at a time.
Dreier is close to the Bush family and is said to have the ear of President Bush’s omnipotent political consigliere, Karl Rove. Back in California, as one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s top advisers during last year’s recall election, he seemed to be everywhere—at Schwarzenegger’s side during important photo ops, on television as a Schwarzenegger surrogate, and negotiating Schwarzenegger’s sole debate appearance—while also somehow finding time to run one of the most important committees in Congress.
After the recall, he chaired Schwarzenegger’s transition team while enjoying numerous entreaties to challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. That exercise ginned up numerous news stories and television interviews for Dreier before he decided against making a run.
With power, visibility, and a congressional district drawn for Republicans, Dreier’s future seemed limitless. That is, until two guys named John Kobylt and Ken Chiampu stepped in to reinforce former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s time-honored adage: all politics is local.
Kobylt and Chiampu host a daily talk show, “John and Ken,” on KFI-AM, a Los Angeles radio station popular with conservatives. Recently, their chief topic has been illegal immigration. The two championed Arizona’s ballot initiative to deny some public services to illegals, and held a contest to single out lawmakers they claim had done little to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants over California’s border.
Winner of that contest—later dubbed their “Political Human Sacrifice”—was none other than Dreier, who has supported Bush’s proposed guest worker program to grant legal status to millions of immigrants living in the United States. He has also championed more H1-B visas to foreign workers.
“Dreier’s been on our show many times, using 30-minute filibusters to promote himself,” Kobylt said in an interview. “He and other California Republicans whine about illegal immigration, but it’s all lip service. So we decided the only way to get any action was to fire someone.”
Thus began the John and Ken’s “Fire Dreier” campaign, complete with a listener-designed Web site, video, and daily rantings on their show. So active were the two that the National Republican Congressional Committee filed a federal election complaint against the show, calling it an illegal campaign contribution to Dreier’s opponent.
Dreier declined to come on the show to defend himself, but fought back hard with radio ads stressing his support of legislation making it harder to forge Social Security cards and penalizing employers who knowingly hire illegals. Schwarzenegger even recorded phone messages for Dreier, calling him “tough as nails” on immigration.
“Immigration is a very emotional issue, and there is a group of voters who have an intense, intense dislike for illegal immigrants,” said Allan Hoffenblum, editor of the California Target Book. “Dreier has the same position that Bush has, which a lot of right wingers don’t like, and it’s easier to go after Dreier than Bush.”
For his part, Kobylt said the immigration issue was a populist concern that both parties had effectively dropped.
“Republicans are in bed with businesses who like low labor costs, and Democrats have this socialist bent,” he said. “But the taxpayers in this country cannot be responsible for a corrupt, bankrupt country like Mexico. We should start throwing employers in jail, a few fat rich white guys in prison.”
Kobylt boasted that he was sure their campaign would open Dreier to a serious primary challenge in 2006, but Hoffenblum was more skeptical.
“The Republican establishment strongly, strongly supports him,” Hoffenblum said. “Dreier would have Schwarzenegger walking precincts for him, and the president would probably join him.”