Home | Opinion | Columnists | Markos Moulitas

Immigration vexes GOP

Like healthcare before it, comprehensive immigration reform has been declared dead more times than al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader. Yet despite the looming midterm elections, Democrats appear ready once again to defy conventional wisdom by pushing a reform agenda. 

“We’re going to come back, we’re going to have comprehensive immigration reform now,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last weekend, speaking to an immigrant-rights crowd of 6,000 in Las Vegas. “We need to do this this year. We cannot wait.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Democrats certainly need to motivate their base, and Latinos delivered 67 percent of their vote to Democrats in 2008. Latinos factor heavily in several battleground states, and Reid and his Democratic colleagues need their votes to stem possible losses this November.

In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) holds a narrow lead in the polls. Eighteen percent of California’s 2008 electorate was Latino, and they gave Barack Obama 74 percent of their vote. 

In New Mexico, where 44.8 percent of the population is Latino, they made up 41 percent of the electorate, giving Obama 69 percent of their vote (compared to just 42 percent of whites). With two contested House races and a tough governor’s race, Latino turnout will be crucial to Democratic chances. 

In Texas, Latinos were 20 percent of the vote, and 63 percent broke for Obama. This solidly red state features a neck-and-neck governor’s race, and Democratic chances will rest, in large part, on the ability to turn out Latinos. Just 23 percent of Texas whites voted for Obama.

Even in Florida, where Cuban-Americans have long been a GOP bulwark, Obama picked up 57 percent of the Latino vote. With several tough House seats in play, a potential three-way Senate race and the governorship up for grabs, strong Latino turnout will prove vital to Democratic chances. Latinos could be similarly influential in other states with hot races, like Colorado, Illinois, Georgia and North Carolina.

But here’s the twist — Democrats don’t need to pass immigration reform to reap benefits. They just need to fight for it. If Republicans kill the legislation, the electoral ramifications are the same — Latinos (and other immigrant groups like Asians) will be motivated to vote for those who are fighting for their interests. 

The equation is different for Republicans, who will be torn between their nativist, xenophobic Tea Party base and political pragmatism. Alienating Latinos may offer short-term electoral gain, but it’s a long-term recipe for disaster. “The Latino vote in this country is the fastest-growing demographic of the electorate — it’s grown 400 percent in the last 20 years,” said George W. Bush pollster Matthew Dowd in 2006. “I think both political parties understand that it’s a demographic that is probably one of the most important [to] who’s going to have majority status in this country.”

Reid claims he has 56 votes — the bulk of his caucus plus South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham (R), co-sponsor of the Senate reform bill. Most Republicans are irrevocably opposed, but four additional GOP votes could be scared up among the likes of Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, John McCain (Ariz.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), George Voinovich (Ohio) and Scott Brown (Mass.). 

Long-term, the best play for the GOP would be to support reform en masse, negating immigration as an issue with Latinos (and making their business friends really happy). Republicans could then compete for this vote on more favorable terrain, using social issues that better appeal to the culturally conservative demographic.

But Republicans won’t do that. Even the few who may peel off to join Democrats in favor of reform won’t be able to mitigate the long-term damage this debate will inflict on their party.

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