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Why Democratic Governors Are (Rightly) Scared of Obama's Stance on Immigration

The New York Times reported today that Democratic governors are worried the White House's decision to sue Arizona over its controversial new immigration law could threaten their already-vulnerable party in November's elections. "It is such a toxic subject," Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen said of immigration, which is emerging as a key issue in this year's mid-terms.

So what do the numbers show? Since Arizona passed its law in April, polls have consistently found that a majority of Americans support it. Last Thursday, Rasmussen found that 61 percent of people would support a similar law in their own states. And, last week, Gallup found that more people oppose the federal government's lawsuit than support it, by a margin of 50 percent to 33 percent. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans oppose the lawsuit, while 56 percent of Democrats favor it. Critically, 56 percent of independents oppose the suit—and Gallup recently showed this bloc is already trending toward Republican candidates this election cycle. "The immigration debate hits a really raw nerve with voters," says Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the border states. The Cook Report has listed the gubernatorial races in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California as "toss-ups," and a majority of people in the states oppose the Obama administration's lawsuit. Duffy says immigration has already played a big role in the states' primaries—most notably helping Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican who signed the new immigration law, soar in her state's polls. "I was not convinced she was going to win her own primary," Duffy says. "Her numbers have skyrocketed since the law was passed, and, now, not only do I think she'll win the primary, but she'll have a better than fighting chance in the election."

Attitudes about immigration are, like attitudes about any issue, a bit muddled once you look at other questions. In June, for instance, Gallup found that Americans were divided 50 percent to 45 percent over whether the government should focus primarily on stemming the flow of illegal immigrants, or on developing policies to deal with people already here illegally. And, in the long run, as Latinos become an ever larger share of the electorate, Democrats could stand to gain from the immigration issue.

But for now and, more importantly, for November? Democratic governors are right to be worried.