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Southwest Senate Retirements Should Trigger Immigration Gut Check for Both Parties

April 05, 2011 - Posted by Martine Apodaca

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Since the 112th Congress came to order, eight senior Senators have announced their retirements in 2012–four of which represent states in the American West.  Senators, Jon Kyl (R-AZ), John Ensign (R-NV), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) have decided to call it quits, giving way to new talent from their states. 

As the Census has shown us, demographics have changed dramatically in these states since these Senators last ran for re-election.  An explosive boom in the Latino population has driven enormous growth in each of these states, and nationwide, there are now more than 50 million Latinos, representing 16% of the country’s total population.  This demographic shift has made Latinos the largest minority group in America with game-changing implications for electoral politics.

Already, Hispanic voters were the fastest growing electoral demographic in key swing states between 2004 and 2008, increasing in share of eligible voters from 8.2% to 9.5%. However, the Latino population boom has not been distributed evenly, and it has been most pronounced in the American Southwest, precisely where many long-time incumbents have decided to pass on reelection, and where both parties will spend inordinate amounts of money.  In Texas, Latinos represent nearly 34% of the potential electorate; in New Mexico, 42.5%; Arizona, 21.3%; and Nevada, 17.3%.  This demographic shift has made Latino voters THE critical voting bloc in each of these sure-to-be-contested Senate races.

According to polling, immigration has become a litmus test issue for Latino voters. Candidates who espouse anti-immigrant policies or oppose comprehensive immigration reform are dead on arrival with this demographic. Thus it behooves the parties to choose their candidates carefully with the long-term implications for their respective parties in mind.

Latino Voters in the West and Southwest Represent a Challenge and Opportunity for Democrats and Republicans

The 2010 midterm elections provided a valuable lesson to both parties. Western and Southwestern states—where Latinos wielded the most influence—proved to be the critical Senate contests. Indeed, after the votes were counted, Latino voters had saved control of the United States Senate for the Democratic Party.  Republican candidates who espoused anti-immigrant policies or called for harsh crackdowns on immigration were defeated in Nevada, Colorado, and California.

Incumbent Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won in an upset by 5 points against Republican challenger Sharron Angle, who angered Nevada’s large and growing number of Latino voters with her aggressive campaign rhetoric aimed at illegal immigrants.  Somewhere between 69% and 90% of Hispanics voted for Reid according to exit polls and Latinos accounted for 12% of the total vote.  In Colorado, a combination of Republican Ken Buck’s anti-immigrant position, and Senator Michael Bennet’s espousal of the DREAM Act and immigration reform helped the Democrat win Latino voters overwhelmingly and propel Bennet to victory.  In California, a combination of Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s and Senate candidate Carly Fiorina’s nonsensical flip-flop positions on immigration reform propelled a Democrat back into the Governor’s mansion and a sent Senator Barbara Boxer back to Washington for a fourth term.

Nationally, Congressional Republicans won just 38% of the Latino vote in 2010. This is an ominous sign for Republicans strategists who must assemble a broad coalition to defeat President Obama and keep key states in the Republican column in 2012.  While Republicans made historic gains in 2010, the electorate that turns out on Nov 6th 2012 will be vastly different than 2010 voters. It will be much larger, younger, and more heavily Latino than in any election in U.S. history.  For both parties to broaden the electoral battleground, they’ll need candidates who appeal to these new voters.

Meanwhile, the harshly anti-immigrant segment of the Republican Party has created an intensely negative perception of the Party among Latino and immigrant voters.  They continue to reinforce this perception by championing draconian anti-immigrant legislation including legislation styled on Arizona’s SB 1070.  As Politico reported about a new California statewide poll,

“Latino voters across the state hold widely negative views of the Republican Party, according to the survey, which was conducted by a GOP pollster and consultant and conceived as a tool to help the party make inroads with Hispanic voters.  Many respondents said they see the GOP as too conservative and don’t trust it on the issue of immigration reform.” 

The poll showed that an astonishingly high 47% of Latino voters have an intensely negative view of the Republican Party and only 26% view them favorably.

Republicans like Jan Brewer, Russell Pearce, and a throng of other restrictionist politicians pushing anti-immigrant bills have put a Republican face on anti-immigrant laws; and Latino and immigrant voters don’t like what they see.  As a result, and because of demographic trends, the Republican Party may be sentencing itself to electoral doom.  This is particularly true in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Texas where the enormous growth in the Latino electorate may turn previously out-of-reach senate seats—like Hutchison’s and Kyl’s—into winnable contests for the Democrats.  The nasty rhetoric coming from some members of the Republican Party on immigration—a litmus test issue for Latino voters—has severely damaged the Republican brand.

While Latino voters may have soured on the Republican brand, they know that Democrats have failed to deliver, repeatedly, on their promises to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, a central campaign promise from the President and the Senate Majority Leader.  And while polling last month suggests that many Latinos approve of President Obama’s performance in key states, only around 43% said they would vote for him next year, according to Latino Decisions. 

The numbers show the explosive growth of Latino voters in these key southwestern states, but it remains to be seen whether either party will be able to translate these numbers into political power.  For example, while Latino voters in Texas represent a potential 33.7 percent of the electorate, more than 2.1 million eligible Latino voters aren’t registered.  If Texas Democrats ever hope to win statewide elected office again—something that hasn’t happened in nearly two decades—they’ll need to recruit and register legions of new Latino voters, nominate candidates with pro-immigrant and pro-Latino policies, and ensure these new voters turnout on Election Day.  For Republicans to continue their statewide dominance, they’ll need to win large numbers of Latino voters.  This job will be made more difficult by a small but vocal segment of the party that continues to call for harsh crackdowns on immigrants and attempts to push Arizona-style anti-immigrant legislation through the Legislature.   

Thus to be taken seriously by Latino voters, both parties would be best served by candidates who espouse common sense, pro-immigration reform policies.  While Arizona Senator Jon Kyl has been one of the most vocal opponents of immigration reform in years past, his potential Republican successor will not have all of the significant advantages of incumbency and will face an electorate that is younger and more Latino.  She or he will not be able to espouse the same enforcement-only policies and harsh rhetoric and expect to be taken seriously by a Latino electorate energized by the nasty anti-immigrant debate in Arizona.

Former President George W. Bush proved that Republicans can attract Latino voters.  He performed better among Latino voters than any other Republican presidential candidate ever, losing the Latino vote by only 60-40 to John Kerry.  This was just enough to put him over the top in critical states like New Mexico.  However, the former President was decidedly pro-immigration reform.

This doesn’t mean that the GOP can recruit candidates who just tone down the rhetoric.  They must choose candidates that have strong pro-immigration reform credentials and who don’t back away from their stance on immigration reform when they face a tough primary.  Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, a GOP candidate for Senator Kyl’s seat, recently abandoned his previously pro-immigration reform position, presumably to protect his right-flank in a Republican primary.  However, this kind of naked flip-flopping on immigrants and immigration reform turns off Latino voters, as GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman learned in California.  During a tough GOP primary, Whitman called for harsh crackdowns on illegal immigrants.  After securing the GOP nomination, Whitman tried to pivot to the general election with warm and fuzzy messages to Latino voters on English and Spanish language television.  It didn’t work.  Latino voters remembered her campaign’s harsh tone and negative campaign ads demonizing immigrants and voted overwhelmingly for her Democratic opponent in the general election.

It’s clear we will have at least four new faces from the Southwest in the next United States Senate.  However, for both parties to win long-term with Latino voters in Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, they’ll need the right candidates and the right policies that appeal to an electorate increasingly dominated by Latinos.  By nominating pro-immigrant candidates and espousing common sense immigration policies, both parties have an opportunity to ensure that the nation’s demographic destiny comports with their long-term and chief goal: winning elections.

Image by Flickr user meg_whitman_no_es_nuestra_amiga

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