How powerful is the immigration issue with voters in Northeast Pennsylvania?
Just ask Democratic U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, who is an 11-term incumbent in the congressional district centered on Scranton-Wilkes Barre and who is now in serious jeopardy of losing his seat to an anti-immigration upstart.
A new Franklin & Marshall poll shows that Lou Barletta, the Republican mayor of Hazleton, has opened a sizable nine-point lead on Kanjorski, even though the economically depressed district is leaning toward Democrat Barack Obama in a year when few Democrats in Congress are seen as in jeopardy.
But the new survey offers ample evidence that Barletta's outspoken views on illegal immigration are putting the GOP candidate, who ran against Kanjorski in 2002 and lost, on the brink of an upset. The mayor pushed a controversial city law punishing landlords who rent to undocumented workers that was struck down by a federal judge and is now being appealed.
The Franklin & Marshall survey of 547 registered voters in the 11th Congressional District found Barletta at 44 percent to 35 percent for Kanjorski, with a large number (21 percent) still undecided. And 17 percent of the voters in the heavily blue-collar district say that immigration is their most important issue in the election, with an overwhelming number of them backing Barletta.
"This is an incumbent who right now is having a serious problem," said G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall's Center for Politics and Public Affairs. He noted that in a district full of socially conservative Democrats, Kanjorski is getting only about half of his own party's voters.
Barletta has become something of a hero to the populist anti-immigration movement on talk radio and elsewhere, and he has a major donor here in Philadelphia in Joey Vento, the cheesesteak entrepreneur known for his strong views on immigrants.
The Republican challenger is leading even though the polls show that voters in his district are highly dissatisfied with President Bush and 76 percent think that America is on the wrong track.