Utah 3: Not So fast, Congressman Tancredo!

July 5, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

Congressman Chris Cannon, Republican of Utah’s 3rd District, was staggered, but he didn’t go down for the count. Instead, it was businessman John Jacob, whose anti-immigration campaign was backed by Colorado GOP Congressman Tom Tancredo, who was knocked out by Republican primary voters on June 27.

Cannon must be getting used to primary challenges. Two years ago, another conservative, Matt Throckmorton, challenged him as insufficiently tough on illegal immigrants. Cannon, whose brother, Joe, is state GOP chairman, beat Throckmorton 58.4% to 41.6%. This time, Cannon had a narrower 11-point victory, 55.8% to 44.1%.

Jacob, who at one point suggested that he was fighting Satan as well as Cannon, improved on Throckmorton’s showing by cutting Cannon’s margin in Salt Lake County, which includes the southern and western suburbs of Salt Lake City.

As he did in 2004, Cannon carried every one of the seven counties in the district (the district includes five full counties and parts of two others). But the congressman’s percentage of the vote dropped in five counties, held steady in one (populous Utah County) and increased in only one.

Cannon’s victory doesn’t demonstrate that anti-immigration forces are without muscle. A sitting Republican congressman who supports President George W. Bush’s position on the need for a comprehensive immigration bill (and who had Bush’s vocal support) could garner only 55 percent of the vote. The wealthy congressman has now had to spend heavily two primaries in a row to win renomination.

But Cannon did win, in spite of Tancredo’s bluster and an independent expenditure by Team America PAC attacking the Utah congressman in TV ads. Tancredo’s pre-primary assessment that “we’ve already won” because Cannon had to fight for his political survival ignores political reality. Everyone knows that immigration is a highly charged emotional issue that divides the GOP. Given that, losing doesn’t have much symbolic value.

Cannon’s victory and the closeness of the primary in Utah demonstrate the extent to which Republicans are divided. The division remains a substantial problem for the party heading into the fall elections, since it means Republicans are likely to spend some of their time attacking each other instead of figuring out a way to defeat Democrats.

This column first appeared on Political Wire on June 29, 2006.