Facebook founder funding immigration ads that aired in Utah — will they have an impact?

Published: Friday, May 3 2013 6:52 a.m. MDT

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., Thursday, March 7, 2013. Zuckerberg on Thursday unveiled a new look for the social network's News Feed, the place where its 1 billion users congregate to see what's happening with their friends, family and favorite businesses.(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Jeff Chiu, AP

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SALT LAKE CITY — A television commercial that aired in Utah backing the immigration reform legislation pending in Congress, paid for by a group with ties to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, may not have much impact.

The minute-long spot features Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., making a pitch to conservatives for the bipartisan bill he and seven other senators introduced earlier this month. It started airing April 23 in Utah and at least five other states.

"I think this is a case where Zuckerberg obviously has a lot of money," said University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank. "Potentially, it's just a waste of airtime."

Burbank said the ads, which stopped airing on KSL earlier this week, appear to be an attempt to sway the votes of Republican senators, including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, seen as an influential figure in the immigration debate.

"Clearly, the intent of the ad was to try to provide a little political cover for somebody like Orrin Hatch," Burbank said, but that's likely unnecessary because Hatch, first elected in 1976, has said he won't run again when his current term ends in six years.

Hatch has said he's taking his time to review the immigration bill, but has worked with Rubio and others on portions of the bill dealing with agricultural workers. Utah's other member of the Senate, GOP Sen. Mike Lee, has said he can't support the bill.

Burbank said many Utahns might not recognize Rubio, even though he's touted as a contender for the White House in 2016. And since Utah is so reliably Republican, Utahns aren't used to seeing national political ads.

When Burbank first saw the commercial, he said his "immediate thought was, 'Why are they running an ad for Marco Rubio here?'"

It was unclear whom the commercial was supposed to appeal to, he said.

Many Utah conservatives already have a broader view on immigration reform, Burbank said, because of the Utah Compact, a set of principles developed in 2010 to guide debate on the issue endorsed by business, community and faith leaders.

Still, he said, it likely made sense to the backers of the commercial to run it in Utah to show "how conservatives can support this issue, because there's already some natural inclination to look at it differently than conservatives elsewhere."

But Paul Mero, president of the Sutherland Institute, a Salt Lake City-based conservative public policy think tank, said he doesn't expect the commercial will change any minds in Utah when it comes to the divisive issue of immigration.

Mero said the commercial will likely reaffirm support for immigration reform among Utahns who have backed similar efforts in the state, and "it'll tick off the ones who were ticked off."

Two years ago, the Sutherland Institute backed controversial legislation in Utah creating a guest worker program for immigrants living in the country illegally that split the GOP.

"What Marco Rubio describes is very close to what the Utah Legislature did," Mero said. "I like the idea. I like the concepts involved. I'm sure Sen. Rubio is going to get grief, but so did we."

Marty Carpenter, vice president of communications for the Salt Lake Chamber, said while the commercial may be running in Utah because of Hatch and Lee, it can only help the business community's effort to get immigration reform passed.

"What we've found is the more time and more opportunity you have to explain to people the need for comprehensive immigration reform, the more they are in favor of the idea," Carpenter said.

The commercials "don't have to move the needle a lot. You just have to soften opinion," he said. "I would say their strategy is to relieve any of the trepidation of those who are more persuadable."

Americans for a Conservative Direction, part of the Facebook founder's nonprofit FWD.us, ran the commercials in Utah, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa and Kentucky, according to Politico.

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewspolitics

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