Susan Page, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - As the Senate begins debate on an immigration overhaul, proponents say the political winds are at their back - not to mention the airwaves.
An analysis of TV advertising nationwide this year by Kantar Media finds supporters of the sweeping bill outspending opponents by more than 3-1, an advantage not enjoyed by such prior Obama White House initiatives as Wall Street regulation and the Affordable Care Act. Backers, led in spending by an advocacy group called the California Endowment, have laid out a total of more than $2.4 million. Foes, led by a group called Numbers USA, have spent a total of more than $717,000.
"It's rare for the 'pro' side of an advocacy fight - and the president's side, to boot - to be the dominant advertiser," says Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar's Campaign Media Analysis Group, though she notes the numbers aren't huge. "Think about health care reform, Wall Street reform, the broad fiscal fight, energy interests battling EPA regulations - all fights in which critics have dominated. Not this time."
On immigration, much of the business community supports the proposal while Republican-leaning groups are divided.
Financing ads on behalf of the bill are groups aligned with leaders of the GOP establishment, among them Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and Americans for a Conservative Direction, which includes former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. Both men have argued that the Republican Party has to make up lost ground among Hispanic voters if it hopes to win national elections in an increasingly diverse electorate.
On the other side are groups including Numbers USA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which support proposals that would reduce immigration levels.
Democratic-leaning groups such as the AFL-CIO, which has spent about $419,000 as of Monday, are solidly on the side of the overhaul. The Service Employees International Union announced Tuesday it was launching a "seven-figure" advertising campaign on cable TV, which started Wednesday morning.
The language used in the ads underscores the politics: 41% of the "pro" spending was for Spanish-language ads. None of the "anti" spending was for Spanish-language ads. The California Endowment, a foundation which has spent nearly $920,000, has aired ads that link immigration to the health care overhaul, two powerful issues for Obama among Latinos. They feature Hispanics who identify themselves as in the United States illegally.
The stakes in the immigration debate loom particularly high for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight and a favorite of conservatives. The Cuban-American freshman senator has emerged as a key negotiator and critical proponent of the bill, and the issue looms as a testing ground for his possible presidential ambitions in 2016.
His central role is clear in the ads themselves. Rubio is mentioned or depicted in more than $500,000 worth of ads about immigration, in ads both for and against the bill. Favorable ads showing him have aired in Iowa, site of the opening presidential caucuses; in South Carolina, site of the first presidential primary in the South; and on Fox News Channel, an influential news outlet for Republicans.
"Anybody who thinks what we have today on immigration is not a problem is fooling themselves," Rubio says, speaking to the camera in an ad financed by American for a Conservative Direction, which counts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg among its founders. The ad focuses on provisions tightening border security. "Stand with Marco Rubio to end de facto amnesty," the narrator concludes.
But an ad by the Federation for American Immigration Reform shows Rubio standing beside a grinning Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. "Remember the broken promises of the 1986 illegal alien amnesty? Sen. Marco Rubio is making the same promises," a narrator declares. "Shouldn't politicians make good on old promises before they make new ones?"
The Senate on Monday took a big step forward on the issue, voting by an overwhelming margin to begin debate on the bill. But passage isn't assured in the Senate, and the battle in the House is expected to be considerably more difficult.