By Russell Berman - 04/27/10 12:23 AM EDT
An aggressive and polarizing push for comprehensive immigration reform could bolster the chances of vulnerable House Democrats who need a high Latino turnout to keep their seats this fall.
The move to thrust immigration ahead of climate change legislation on the Senate agenda has been seen as a strategy to boost the imperiled reelection bid of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But its impact could extend well beyond Nevada to House and Senate races in Western states where Latino voters make up an increasingly large percentage of the electorate.
In Colorado, another first-term House member facing a difficult reelection campaign, Rep. Betsy Markey (D), represents a McCain-won district in which nearly 9 percent of the electorate is Hispanic.
Nowhere is the issue more volatile than in Arizona, the site of a strict new immigration enforcement law that has sparked a national debate. Three House Democrats in Arizona — Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Gabrielle Giffords and Harry Mitchell — are facing competitive races and must simultaneously respond to the new law while navigating the thorny politics of comprehensive reform.
The immigration effort comes as President Barack Obama is trying to reunite the coalition that helped elect him in 2008. The president released a video message on Monday in which he called on supporters “to make sure that the young people, African-Americans, Latinos and women, who powered our victory in 2008 stand together once again.”
While the debate will make some Democrats uncomfortable, advocates for an immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship say the new focus in Washington could energize Latino voters and prove a net win for Democrats in November.
“Latino voters could actually make up the difference in tight races,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director for America’s Voices, a pro-immigration advocacy group. The organization released a 49-page report last month highlighting congressional and gubernatorial races where the Latino vote — and thus support for immigration reform — would be critical.
Yet it is unclear whether incumbents in tough 2010 races will embrace the new push on immigration, even in districts with significant Hispanic populations.
Giffords, first elected in 2006, called for a comprehensive immigration bill as recently as last summer, but she is now focused on a border security-first approach, her spokesman, C.J. Karamargin, said Monday.
“Border security is the congresswoman’s main focus at this time,” he said.
Giffords called for the Obama administration to deploy National Guard troops on the border after that incident.
She has called the law signed last week by Gov. Jan Brewer “divisive,” but she has not gone as far as a fellow Arizona Democrat, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, in supporting a boycott of the state in protest.
Mitchell has also emphasized border security and called for more National Guard troops to patrol the U.S.-Mexico divide. A spokesman, Robbie Sherwood, said the congressman “believes that this new state law is a reminder that the federal government has failed to secure the border and establish a tough and realistic immigration system.” Sherwood said Mitchell supports a “comprehensive approach” to immigration, but not “amnesty.”
Other House Democrats for whom the Hispanic vote could be consequential include Reps. Ed Perlmutter (Colo.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.) and Ciro Rodriguez (Texas).
The key question for Democrats is whether the potential benefit in turning out Latino voters in many races will offset the difficulty that vulnerable incumbents will face in districts that favor a hard-line approach to illegal immigration.
For many Democrats — particularly Blue Dogs in the Rust Belt and the South — there is clearly little appetite for legislation that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
More than 30 House Democrats signed on last year to the SAVE Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) that enhances border security and enforcement mechanisms but does not provide a path to citizenship.
It is opposed by pro-immigration groups.
For party leaders, the rationale in tackling a politically explosive issue in an election year might be that there’s limited risk because the conservative GOP base is already riled up.
“I suspect there’s not a whole lot more room for Republicans to be more energized than they are today,” said David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report. He said the immigration effort might help “marginally” for Democrats in districts with a large Latino population, while the issue will “continue to hurt” the party incumbents representing more homogenous, working-class constituencies.
Overall, he said, “I think it cancels out.”