Why the Latino vote matters in 2014 midterms: immigration

In the battle for control of the US Senate, only one key state in 2014 has a significant Latino population. But the midterms are a dress rehearsal for 2016, and both parties see immigration as a defining issue for their voters.

Brennan Linsley/AP
Candidate for US Congress Andrew Romanoff, middle, hosts several undocumented students who came to the US as children, to discuss the impact that passing immigration reform legislation would have on them and their families, at Romanoff's campaign office Friday June 27, 2014 in Aurora, Colo. June 27 marks the one year anniversary of the Senate passing immigration reform legislation, which has yet to pass in the House of Representatives.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Latino vote won’t have much impact on this November’s midterm elections. Indeed, in the battle for control of the Senate – the big question mark of the midterms – almost none of the key states have significant populations of Hispanic voters.

Only in Colorado, where Sen. Mark Udall (D) is fighting for his political life, do Hispanics represent a major portion of the electorate – 15 percent of eligible voters and 10 percent of likely voters, according to a New York Times analysis.

But there’s another way to look at Hispanic outreach in 2014: as a dress rehearsal for 2016, when Hispanics will play a crucial role in the next presidential race. Messages that go out now will not be forgotten when the 2016 cycle starts – essentially, the day after the Nov. 4 midterms.

Last Friday the Republican-led House voted to rescind President Obama’s authority to delay deportation for certain undocumented immigrants, a slap at the so-called “Dreamers” who came to the United States illegally as children and are now able to stay legally and work. The House measure was symbolic, as the Senate had already left town and Mr. Obama had no intention of signing it in any case. But Democrats will use that vote as evidence of what they see as Republican hostility toward Hispanic immigrants.

The recent crisis of child migrants flooding into the United States from Central America has also become a hot-button issue, testing both parties as they seek to energize their base voters for the midterms. But in 2014, the political import is mostly not with Hispanic voters; it’s about how white voters perceive the issue.

“The immigration issue gives Republicans a better chance of consolidating the older, conservative white vote,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “That’s who is most likely to turn out in the midterms.”

Democrats say that Republicans are already energized to turn out in November, and so it’s Democrats who are getting better mileage out of immigration.

“The president and Democrats can campaign against the House and the [Ted] Cruz wing of the GOP in the Senate that A) they’re not working to solve problems, and B) these guys are sort of mean,” says Democratic communications specialist Peter Fenn. “There can be some reverberations with that, and not just with Hispanic voters, I think.”

Still, not all Democrats are embracing Obama’s approach to immigration. Last week, two Democratic senators in tough reelection fights expressed skepticism over the president’s reported intention later this summer to reduce deportations via executive action.

“I think this is a congressional issue and I encourage Speaker [John] Boehner in the House to bring up a bill, to vote on a bill for immigration reform so that we can then put it into conference,” Sen. Kay Hagan (D) of North Carolina said in The Hill newspaper. “And I do support congressional action over executive action.”

Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, another vulnerable Democrat, is also distancing himself from the president on immigration.

The White House is “sending mixed messages: telling folks not to cross the border illegally and then turning around to hand out work permits to people who are already here illegally,” Senator Pryor told the Associated Press.

But even if Democrats aren’t speaking with one voice on immigration, Republicans face their own challenges. The GOP’s poor image among minorities has been a longstanding problem, and could come up at the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) summer meeting in Chicago later this week.

In the 2012 presidential race, Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney among Latinos 71 percent to 27 percent. Critical swing states, including Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, have significant Latino populations that have only grown since 2012.

In the RNC’s report on the 2012 election, the authors called for the GOP to embrace “comprehensive immigration reform,” their only policy recommendation. Since then, the phrase has become radioactive for conservatives, who see it as code for “amnesty.” But among Latinos, the Republican message of economic opportunity and family values is likely to go unheard as long as the immigration issue remains unresolved.

Republicans may take some solace in a new report from the Brookings Institution in Washington that suggests the GOP’s growing attraction to white voters could stave off political oblivion for some time.

“Given that whites still make up about three-quarters of the voters in the nation and will likely be the clear majority for decades to come, there is every reason to believe that whites will have a real say in who governs,” writes Marisa Abrajano, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

“Indeed the white population’s growing allegiance to the Republican Party points to a very different short term future – one that might more likely be highlighted by Republican victory than by Democratic dominance.”

But counting on ever-larger shares of the white vote hardly seems a formula for long-term Republican success. And as long as Democrats hold onto minority voters, plus significant elements of the white non-Hispanic vote – including young adults, single women, and gays – presidential races in particular promise to be highly competitive. 

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