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Chris Cannon

OREM — Rep. Chris Cannon's radio ads in the weeks before his convincing Republican primary victory conjured up images of a vast national conspiracy mobilized against him.

"I just wish the special interests would quit their negative attacks," a woman's voice said in one radio spot for Cannon.

And it was true that for months, Cannon was attacked in the media for sponsoring a bill that would provide temporary legal status to undocumented workers.

The ads, on radio and billboards and in newspapers, were paid for by out-of-state groups that want to unseat Cannon and other like-minded Republican members of Congress to bolster their efforts to gain tighter immigration laws.

Cannon's victory may have wounded that effort, some say.

It's not known how much organizations like ProjectUSA and the Coalition for the Future American Worker spent in Utah's 3rd District Republican primary, but Cannon's camp says the total was $80,000 — more than challenger Matt Throckmorton raised and spent on his campaign.

Those efforts drew the attention of political insiders in Washington, D.C., including the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. Arizona Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe were among those who watched with interest.

Cannon beat Throckmorton, 58 percent to 42 percent.

The Journal called it a "Throckmorton thumping" and said it should convince Republican candidates that Cannon-style immigration reform can be a political winner.

Throckmorton called the loss disappointing on a national level.

"The two races in Arizona won't be as close as this one," he predicted. "This is carte blanche. There's no incentive now not to run open-borders legislation. The political message sent is that if you run, you'll get some folks upset and you'll have to run hard, but taking that stance will have little impact."

Arizona's Flake said Cannon's victory provided a good indication of where American voters stand on immigration policy.

"I think the relatively large margin of victory and his position on the issue indicate people understand our immigration policy is a massive failure right now, at huge costs to Utah, Arizona and other states," Flake told the Deseret Morning News.

"The president has embraced meaningful immigration reform, and people want this serious issue taken seriously. People who believe we can seal the borders and throw people out aren't being serious."

Utah political strategists said Throckmorton's loss was striking because Cannon's last primary opponent, Jeremy Friedbaum in 1998, picked up 24 percent of the vote without campaigning.

"That means a quarter of Republicans in his district will always vote against Chris," said one source close to both Cannon and Throckmorton. "It's disappointing for Matt to do only 18 points better" after his campaign and other groups targeting Cannon spent $130,000 to $150,000.

However, ProjectUSA president Craig Nelsen refused to throw in the towel. In fact, he claimed in an e-mail to supporters Friday that "immigration realists scored a major victory Tuesday" because Cannon managed 58 percent of the vote.

"Here's a candidate who spent a fraction of what the incumbent did," Nelsen told the Deseret Morning News. (Cannon spent more than $300,000.) "(Throckmorton) was fighting the establishment and running basically on one issue, immigration, and got 42 percent of registered Republicans. That's hugely encouraging."

Throckmorton didn't see it that way.

"I expect over the next six months to a year we'll see some pretty sweeping bills," he said.

Cannon expected his AgJOBS bill, which would provide temporary legal status to thousands of illegal immigrants working American agricultural jobs, to come to vote in October. If successful, he planned to introduce a larger bill to similarly deal with the other 10-12 million undocumented aliens in the United States.

He believed the proposals would strengthen U.S. security by requiring registration in exchange for legal status and would fix a broken system. Opponents such as Nelsen and Throckmorton said that rewards illegal behavior and that Cannon is giving away the store. They favor stronger border restrictions.

Throckmorton also expressed concern about attempts to tighten Utah's immigration-related laws after Utah Rep. Michael Thompson's, R-Orem, upset loss on Tuesday to Lorie Fowlke.

The loss is a blow to Throckmorton's long efforts to repeal two Utah laws, one that provides drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants and another that gives in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduate from Utah high schools.

Thompson sponsored the failed bill to repeal the driver's license law last year. While immigration wasn't an issue in his campaign, Utah lawmakers will still tie the losses together, said Throckmorton, a former state legislator from Springville.

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"When you run campaigns on tough issues, it's kind of winner-take-all," he said. "For other legislators, the message is pretty clear: Don't touch the issue. This will certainly have long-lasting impact."

Immigration still could become a flashpoint in the general election, where early polls show Cannon with a wide lead over Democrat Beau Babka.

Babka won't formalize an immigration policy until he meets Hispanic leaders and others, but he predicted immigration wouldn't be a key point in his campaign.

However, he did say that Cannon's policy has "dangerously ignored the need for better protection of our national borders."

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com; dbulkeley@desnews.com