When state Sen. John Campbell makes his final push in December to win a prized congressional district in coastal Orange County, the biggest fight may come not from his Democratic opponent but from a retired accountant who gained notoriety by watching for illegal immigrants at the Mexican border.
Voter discontent over illegal immigration propelled Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist, a first-time candidate and member of the American Independent Party, into a strong third-place finish in Tuesday’s special election to succeed Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) in the 48th District.
The biggest surprise wasn’t Campbell, who won 46% of Tuesday’s vote—short of an outright victory, but enough to secure the Republican nomination for a Dec. 6 showdown among top party vote-getters.
More striking was that Gilchrist—a political unknown a year ago—grabbed more votes than the top Democrat, Steve Young. He also came within shouting distance of the second-place finisher, former Assemblywoman Marilyn C. Brewer of Newport Beach, a Republican who represented much of the district for six years.
Gilchrist made a splash this year when he created a group of volunteers to take shifts watching for illegal crossings into the United States from Mexico, staging their first protest in Arizona. His Minuteman Project—instant fodder for television and radio talk shows—was praised by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger but derided as vigilantes by President Bush.
“This is the first time I’ve seen a third-party candidate with such a strong showing,” marveled political consultant Scott Hart of Newport Beach, who wasn’t affiliated with any of the 17 candidates on the ballot.
“Illegal immigration was Gilchrist’s issue and his platform, and that’s why people were voting for him,” Hart said. “It shows how strong the issue is.”
But Campbell found himself on the defensive over his record on illegal immigration. He had to explain why he’d voted in the Assembly to allow in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants attending state colleges and another vote to allow the acceptance of Mexican consular cards for identification.
He said the votes were a mistake and argued that he’d subsequently proved himself on the issue. He voted to block money for undocumented immigrants in the state budget and is co-chair of an initiative intended for a 2006 vote to create a state border police. He also funded a referendum in 2003 to pressure the Legislature to repeal a bill granting driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.