Sunday, November 7, 2010

Latino voters' impact varied by region

Few Republican candidates in the midterm election paid a price for adopting a hard-line immigration stance — except in the West

Republican Susana Martinez of New Mexico was elected the first U.S. Latina governor

With images of menacing, tattooed Latinos and beleaguered whites, the TV ad contended that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was too soft on illegal immigrants. "It's clear whose side he's on," the announcer said, "and it's not yours."

Sharron Angle, a "tea party" favorite and Reid's Republican challenger, had attempted to pummel Reid for his support for legalizing illegal immigrants. But Angle paid a price for her tough stance when Nevada's Latino voters came out in record numbers last week and helped Reid win a fifth term.

Across the country, Lou Barletta, the mayor of a small Pennsylvania city who is best known for backing a law forbidding property owners from renting to illegal immigrants, had little difficulty winning election to the House of Representatives.

A look at the electoral map shows that, outside selected parts of the Southwest, few Republican candidates this year paid a price for adopting a hard-line immigration stance.

The reason is that most of the historic wave that swept Democrats from office last week was in Midwestern or Rust Belt states, where Latinos make up only a fragment of the voting population. For example, Democrats lost five House seats, a Senate seat and the governorship in Pennsylvania, where only 3% of eligible voters are Latino.

Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook report who tracks congressional races, has a message to activists who contend immigration is the Democrats' salvation: Don't hold your breath. "You've got to have states where [immigration] matters, where that Latino vote is enough to tip races," Duffy said. "Those states are in the West."

Although Latinos have been moving to more remote parts of the country in recent years, many may be too young to vote or may lack citizenship status. That makes it even tougher to replicate the Western experience in places such as Pennsylvania, she said. "Not only do they not have the Latino vote to help, they have an illegal immigrant problem," Duffy said of Democrats. "It's a double whammy."

Analysts agree that most voters do not choose candidates based solely on their immigration position. In exit polls this year, only 8% of voters nationwide said immigration was their top issue. Latino voters placed immigration well behind the economy and jobs.

Barletta, a Republican, said immigration never really factored into his successful race against veteran Democratic Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski. "The issue really took a back seat to jobs, the economy and healthcare," he said in a telephone interview. Still, Barletta first came to wider fame because of his work on the immigration ordinance in the city of Hazleton, and said he was often approached by voters who favored his position.

A hard-line immigration stance has become almost standard for GOP candidates nationally, as an older generation that backed immigration reform is pushed out by conservative activists. Even though it wasn't the centerpiece of their agenda, GOP candidates weren't shy about talking about the need to secure the border or their backing of Arizona's controversial new immigration law.

The election pushed Congress sharply to the right on immigration matters. Numbers USA, which advocates tougher immigration restrictions, estimates that 40 congressional representatives and senators who favored some sort of legal residency for illegal immigrants were replaced by hardliners this election.

Some of those new Republican officeholders are themselves Latino. Raul Labrador, an immigration attorney of Puerto Rican descent, ousted Democrat Rep. Walt Minnick in Idaho while declaring in his formal immigration policy statement: "Illegal is illegal!"

Susana Martinez of New Mexico became the first Latina governor in the nation after criticizing her Democratic predecessor's decision to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Brian Sandoval won the governorship in Nevada and Marco Rubio a Senate seat in Florida. "I think what you're seeing is that there is no longer the notion that if you have a Spanish surname, you must be a Democrat," said Javier Ortiz, an Atlanta-based GOP operative who has been working to get Republican Latinos elected.

Still, polls show Latinos are fairly reliably in the Democratic column. Jill Hanauer of Project New West, which tracks Western political trends, said that Latino candidates like Martinez and Rubio are notable because they were able to oppose immigration reform in a way that did not alienate the Latino electorate. "In Nevada and Colorado, you had candidates use immigration to really motivate angry white voters," Hanauer said. The Latino Republicans "didn't go over the line." Even so, Sandoval got 33% of the Latino vote in exit polls, and Martinez 38%.

The damage the immigration issue inflicted on Western Republicans was not limited to Nevada. In California, Latinos overwhelmingly backed Democrats Jerry Brown for governor and Barbara Boxer for Senate over Republicans who struggled to sell their tough stance on illegal immigration.

In Colorado's Senate race, Republican challenger Ken Buck had a record of being aggressive in immigration enforcement as a district attorney, and he narrowly lost. Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, a vocal foe of illegal immigration, lost his bid for governor here, though he ran a quixotic third-party campaign and was never given much chance of winning.

Arizona was another story. In the epicenter of the immigration fight this year, Republicans swept statewide races and picked up two congressional seats after backing its new immigration law. Gov. Jan Brewer, who became a celebrity after signing the measure in April, coasted to reelection.

Steve Camarota at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which advocates for tougher immigration restrictions, said that it was obvious that enforcement was more popular politically than legalization because Democrats didn't push legalization when Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) was speaker of the House. "If she thought it was a political winner, don't you think she'd have brought it up?" Camarota said.


Republican Resurgence Likely to Derail 'Immigration Reform'

As part of an 11th-hour appeal, President Obama warned Hispanic voters last month that the fate of "comprehensive immigration reform" would hinge largely on Tuesday's midterm elections. Now that Republicans, through sweeping gains in those elections, have captured the House and diminished the Democratic majority in the Senate, the fate of that initiative is very much in doubt.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who is expected to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said "immigration reform" will be pushed aside for streamlined enforcement of current laws. "The enforcement of our immigration laws is critical to both our national security and economic prosperity," he told the San Antonio Express. "We need to know who is entering our country, and why."

He told the newspaper that the committee under his leadership would "enact policies that will better secure our border and discourage illegal immigration, human smuggling and drug trafficking."

A Fox News national exit poll found that of the 8 percent of voters polled who identified illegal immigration as their top issue in the 2010 election, 68 percent were Republican while 27 percent were Democrat. Another poll, conducted on Election Day by the anti-illegal immigration group FAIR, found that 69 percent of people surveyed consider immigration an important issue and 61 percent believe Obama "has not been aggressive enough in enforcing immigration law."

FAIR is pushing the new Congress to focus on border security. "FAIR urges the leadership of the next Congress to embrace the agenda of the American people and transform our immigration policy to place their interests first," Dan Stein, president of FAIR, said. "The American people want our immigration laws enforced and overall levels of immigration reduced. They have clearly repudiated efforts to enact amnesty for millions of illegal aliens and increase foreign labor for business interests."

Republicans now have a record number of Latinos joining the next Congress, including Marco Rubio in the Senate and seven others in the House. They could prove a convincing force in the drive to shore up weak immigration laws.

Democrats tried to pounce on Republicans for their support of Arizona's controversial law that clamped down on illegal immigrants and their opposition to birthright citizenship and earned-citizenship proposals.

A week before Tuesday's election, Obama appealed to Hispanics in an interview on Univision Radio to vote for Democrats who would give him the support he needed to pass bills that overhaul the immigration system and provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in this country. "And if Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, we're going to punish our enemies and we're going to reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us, if they don't see that kind upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it's going to be harder – and that's why I think it's so important that people focus on voting on Nov. 2," he said. Obama later said he should have used the word "opponents" instead of "enemies."

But not only did Republicans shake up Washington, they also captured a majority of governor's mansions across the country, which is also likely to affect the national debate on immigration reform.

Two Hispanic Republican-elect governors – Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susanna Martinez in New Mexico – both will represent Southwest states, but they aren’t bowing to immigration doves.

Sandoval has said he supports Arizona's immigration law but has been told by law enforcement officials that it is not needed in Nevada, which tops the nation in unemployed and illegal workers. Martinez has vowed to start seeking to repeal a state law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and opposes providing illegal immigrants with free tuition through taxpayer-funded lottery scholarships.

But some Democrats aren't giving up on immigration reform just yet. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised before his re-election victory that he would bring up the DREAM Act for a vote in the lame duck session. The measure would grant conditional legal status to some illegal immigrant students under certain conditions.

Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said he intends to introduce an immigration reform bill in the next Congress. "With Republicans now in the majority in the House of Representatives, many policies will probably change radically," he wrote in an opinion article published in the San Francisco Chronicle. "What must not change, however, is work on immigration reform."

Honda said his bill will allow all Americans to be reunited with their families, including gay couples. "The benefits of this policy cannot be overstated: American workers with their families by their side are happier, healthier and more able to succeed than those living apart from loved ones for years on end," he wrote. "This is a time when we must use every available resource to stimulate our economy and control government spending. That is why comprehensive immigration reform makes good sense."


No comments:

Post a Comment