The Washington Post, not generally known for exaggerating the electoral viability of anti-immigration politicians, has another item, this time a full news report, on the significance of the candidate’s opposition illegal immigration in the excessively touted, but better-than-expected performance of Jim Ogonowski in the MA-05 special election:

But by last month, although opinion polling showed that he was well liked, he was still running 10 points behind Democrat Niki Tsongas with just weeks to go before a special election. The campaign needed a way to go beyond biography, to persuade Northern Massachusetts to vote Republican. They found it in illegal immigration.

GOP spinmeister Democratic House majority whip Rahm Emanuel commented:

This issue has real implications for the country. It captures all the American people’s anger and frustration not only with immigration, but with the economy.  It’s self-evident. This is a big problem.

Republicans can either capitalise on this and address the economic and other anxieties of voters (which would require them to cease their “the sun never sets” rhetoric about the economy for starters) and craft a message that will reach the “Lou Dobbs voters” and others in fairly hard-hit parts of the country, or they can ignore this potential advantage and pretend that all will be well.  We know what the leading presidential candidates want to pursue the latter course.  The question is: why would the Republicans want to cede an issue that they theoretically could use to their advantage?  So that they can retain their credibility as ideologues of free trade?

The Post story continued:

“Immigration played into the economic issue,” said Francis Talty, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who followed the Tsongas-Ogonowski contest. “Do you want illegal immigrants to get in-state [university] tuition? Do you want them to get driver’s licenses? Do you want their children to get benefits under SCHIP? It was the benefit side that has real resonance, not the deportation thing.”

In other words, the “Tancredoisation” of these issues, so to speak, by Ogonowski apparently did work to his advantage.  It wasn’t enough to overcome Tsongas’ lead and all the natural advantages a Democratic candidate has, but it helped narrow the gap.  Immigration was apparently just about the only area where Ogonowski had a decisive advantage:

Internal polling found that Ogonowski’s tough stance was winning 60 percent to 30 percent over the positions articulated by Tsongas, said Rob Autry, another Public Opinion Strategies partner who served as Ogonowski’s pollster. Ogonowski’s position on taxes had a narrower, 13 percentage point lead. Every other issue “was dicey,” he said.  

So, one of the lessons of MA-05 would seem to be that recasting issues on which Republicans are on the losing side into an argument about illegal immigration is a vote-winner.