Immigration wasn't the main issue in the 2010 New Hampshire Senate race. But it was a topic of great interest for many Republican voters, and GOP candidate Kelly Ayotte took a pretty hard line.
Rather than calling for comprehensive immigration reform, Ayotte stressed tightening border security and enforcing existing laws. "In the Senate, Kelly's top immigration priority will be to secure our borders -- no excuses," said her campaign website. "Simultaneously, she will work to ensure that existing immigration laws are enforced, and is against amnesty."
Ayotte also endorsed the Arizona immigration law that had come under fire from immigration advocates around the country. "I absolutely support what Arizona has done," she said. She slammed a Republican primary opponent for allegedly being soft on the Arizona statute. She wanted to make English the official language of the United States. And in a move that took her beyond many opponents of comprehensive immigration reform, she said she might consider changing the Constitution to do away with the 14th Amendment's birthright citizenship provision.
All in all, the Kelly Ayotte of 2010 did not seem likely to turn into a supporter of today's 2013 Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, better known as the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill. But that is exactly what Ayotte did Sunday, with an op-ed and a talk-show appearance declaring her intention to vote for the bill.
"This is a good bipartisan solution and I look forward to supporting it," Ayotte said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Our immigration system is completely broken."
"We need to stop the flow of illegal immigrants," Ayotte wrote in the op-ed, "and we need to bring undocumented people out of the shadows to separate those seeking economic opportunity from those seeking to harm us (who must be deported)."
If Ayotte recognized any of the problems in the bill that she might have objected to in 2010, she didn't say. Indeed, the striking thing about Ayotte's endorsement was how little it engaged the substance of the Gang of Eight bill. For example, many of her conservative supporters object to its plan to grant legal status to the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants before any enhanced security measures are in place. Ayotte sides with the gang on that, but she never explained why.
Nor did she display even a whiff of skepticism about the bill's reliance on a visa exit-entry system that has been mandated by Congress multiple times in the past decade and a half, but never actually put in place. And if she has any reservations about the bill's lack of "triggers" to make sure new security is actually in effect before currently illegal immigrants embark on the path to citizenship, she didn't say so.
"Ayotte shows no sign of knowing what the main objections of the bill's critics are, much less of having grappled with them," wrote the editors of National Review in a scathing assessment of her reasoning.
After Ayotte's announcement, I sent a note to her office asking whether her support of the Gang of Eight bill is consistent with her 2010 campaign positions on immigration. "Senator Ayotte's views are consistent," answered spokeswoman Liz Johnson. "She supported states like Arizona enacting their own laws because the federal government hadn't acted on this issue. The status quo is unacceptable. Instead of President Obama issuing more executive orders that circumvent the will of Congress and the American people, she supports enacting legislation that will stop the dangerous flow of illegal immigrants into our country through greater border security, more effective enforcement, and a vigorous employment verification program."
Ayotte's decision is an important milestone for the bill, because she is the first Republican outside the four GOP members of the gang -- Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Jeff Flake -- to support the measure. A few more Republicans, plus the vast majority of the Senate's 54 Democrats, and the bill can easily clear the 60-vote filibuster hurdle for Senate passage.
As for Ayotte herself, it's not clear what effect her move will have. Of course, there's a division of opinion on immigration in New Hampshire, as there is in the rest of the country. And the complex of business leaders, activists, lobbyists and politicos who are pushing the Gang of Eight bill is as active in Ayotte's home state as elsewhere. But think back to 2010. To win votes, Ayotte had to take a hard-line position on immigration. Now, safely elected and making a place for herself in Washington, she has committed to the Gang of Eight. That's a big change.
Byron York, The Washington Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.