Immigration move roils Nevada

President Obama's executive actions on immigration threw gasoline on the fire of border politics — and nowhere is it burning hotter than in Nevada, where incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDems' Florida Senate primary nears its bitter end Trump haunts McCain's reelection fight 10 most expensive House races MORE (D-Nev.) is gearing up for a tough reelection.

Obama chose the Silver State, which has proportionately more illegal immigrants than anywhere else in the country, to begin a tour aimed at winning support for his decision to stop deportations for as many as 5 million people. 

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His first shout-out in a Friday speech at a heavily Hispanic Las Vegas high school went to Reid, who has been emphasizing his support for immigration reform in general and the president’s decision in particular, while at the same time eyeing a potential challenge from popular Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R).

The election might be Reid’s toughest, especially if Sandoval is the opponent. Reid’s approval ratings are underwater, hovering in the low 40s in the few recent polls of Nevada. His best hope of winning reelection is to galvanize the state’s rapidly growing populations of Hispanics and Asian Americans. Immigration reform presents him with his best chance to do so.

Reid described Obama’s immigration announcement as “great news for families in Nevada and across the country” in a Thursday night statement, adding that the president’s decision “will not only keep families together, it will enforce our immigration laws in a way that protects our national security and public safety.” 

Nevada’s Hispanic population has more than doubled since 2000. Hispanics now make up more than a quarter of the overall population and, in 2012, accounted for more than 15 percent of the state’s eligible voters. Asian Americans make up 8 percent of the state’s population. Fully 7.6 percent of Nevada’s population consists of illegal immigrants, the highest figure of any state in the nation.

Reid has long been a champion of immigration reform, and leaned heavily on Hispanic voters in his tough 2010 reelection battle.  

Now, allies past and present believe Obama’s executive actions could help him replicate that achievement.

“This effort should help Sen. Reid in 2016. ... No one appreciates more than Sen. Reid the power of the Hispanic vote. After all, it played a key difference in him eking out a victory in 2010,” said former Reid communications director Jim Manley. “It's important to note he's also fully committed to this cause, which is why it's great the president is starting off in Nevada.”

But this past month’s elections showed Democrats can’t bank on demographics alone. Sandoval, a Hispanic moderate, romped to reelection against token opposition with 70 percent of the vote. His coattails flipped the state legislature to the GOP and took out Rep. Steve Horsford (D-Nev.) in a heavily Democratic district that Obama had won by 10 points in 2012.

Sandoval is far and away the first choice among state Republicans looking for a credible candidate to challenge Reid. If he were to run, he might well start off the race as the favorite. But the chances of him getting into the race are less than 50-50, many political observers believe. 

Sandoval voiced measured criticism of Obama’s executive actions, noting he supports comprehensive immigration reform as a principle but disagrees with the president’s move on procedural grounds. 

He argued that true solutions must come through Congress and that the use of executive power gives “false hope to the millions of people across America who will continue to wait for a permanent solution.”

That’s a sharp break from the rhetoric other Republicans have used, painting Obama as a monarch or emperor, and accusing him of breaching the Constitution. It’s also a shift from the more hardline stances Sandoval himself took in his 2010 race. The move to the center, if it continues, could make it harder for Reid to attack him on immigration in a potential Senate battle.

If Sandoval decides against a bid, other possible GOP contenders include outgoing Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and his soon-to-be successor, Mark Hutchison. Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) and Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) have said they’re not interested in a race.

Whoever his opponent turns out to be, Reid will have to fight hard to win another Senate term.

 “I think Reid is an underdog and a serious underdog for reelection, but don't count him out,” said Nevada politics expert Jon Ralston. “The Hispanic vote here is critical. It dropped off the face of the earth two weeks ago. If Reid doesn't get very high turnout among Hispanics, he's in big trouble."