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Immigration is Dems’ key

No matter who wins the tight special election in Massachusetts, the results will likely render Democrats paralyzed with fear. Indeed, the anti-incumbent sentiment that aided Democrats the last two cycles now threatens to take out a big chunk of the Democratic majorities this coming November, and the governing party has done little to prove it can deliver on campaign promises.

That won’t stop Latino groups from demanding that Congress and the president tackle one of those promises — comprehensive immigration reform. But the once-bipartisan push for reform has shed Republicans as the growing Tea Party movement, hostile to immigrants, enforces its Manichaean purity code. Born of old-school xenophobia and racism, the right-wing anti-immigrant hysteria has been fueled by the GOP’s loss of its once-substantial share of the Latino vote. It’s one thing to hurl invective at a demographic that gave George W. Bush 40 percent of its vote in 2004. It’s a lot easier to do so when that group is seen as a monolithic liberal bloc that broke roughly 70-30 for Obama in 2008 — despite John McCain’s identification as an immigration reformer.

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Under Karl Rove’s tutelage, Bush made significant headway with Latinos in the early half of the 2000s. In 1999, according to Pew, 58 percent of Latinos identified as Democratic, 25 percent as Republican. That difference was whittled down to 49-28 by 2006. Yet in the years since, Latinos now identify with Democrats by a 65-26 margin. The GOP’s increasingly shrill anti-immigrant rhetoric frightened most of those voters away, a process hastened by shameful Republican treatment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at her confirmation hearings. According to Research 2000’s weekly polling for Daily Kos, the Republican Party now is seen favorably by just 16 percent of Latinos, compared to 72 percent who see it unfavorably (actually up from the post-Sotomayor nadir of 3 percent favorable, 86 percent unfavorable in early August 2009).

Democrats won the Latino vote in large part by promising comprehensive immigration reform, including a fair path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who pay a fine and learn English. Now, having squandered 2009 by bailing out bloated industries, watering down the stimulus package and engaging in a bumbling effort at healthcare reform, Democrats may well fall victim to voters looking for payback.

Rarely aggressive to begin with, Democrats are now particularly gun-shy, afraid to tackle another hot-button issue even though immigration reform opponents have always been far louder than they are numerous. A poll by immigration reform group America’s Voice asked, “Most members of Congress agree that to deal with the problem of illegal immigration, we need to make our borders secure, crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and deport illegal immigrants who commit crimes. In addition to these steps, what should be done about the 12 million illegal immigrants who will remain in the country?” Sixty-six percent of respondents said those immigrants should register and be given a chance to become citizens. In November 2008, 67 percent supported a path to citizenship, suggesting the bad economy has had little impact on support.

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And those are bipartisan numbers — support for reform is 69 percent among Democrats, 67 percent among independents and 62 percent among Republicans.

The issue is popular, the policy is sound and Democrats can seize the opportunity to deliver on at least one major campaign promise. While under the sway of their Tea Party faction, Republicans will prove unable to stem their bleeding with this potential swing group, a fact that may give Democrats a leg up in what’s shaping up to be a tough election year.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com).