Friday, June 13, 2014

Could Immigration Be an Issue in the 2014 Midterms?

Congressional Candidate Amanda Renteria (D-CA)

In the wake of the Eric Cantor loss, the question of what exactly this means to the Democrats has become an interesting question.  On the surface level, it doesn’t seem like this matters other than some snickering amongst Democrats over one of the Republican leaders being ousted (and one who has been a particular thorn in President Obama’s side).  After all, he’s not John Boehner-this isn’t a loss people will remember a month from now in Middle America, much less all the way to November.  The Democrats have about as strong of a chance to pick up Virginia-7 as I do of sleeping with Russell Tovey.  There is no obvious electoral win for the Democrats, just one Republican getting swapped out for another one (one who has a list of questionable quotes a mile long, but hardly someone who could become a national figure in the way that Mark Foley was eight years ago).

And yet, there’s always some angle to play, and here it’s the reason why Eric Cantor lost, which seems to have been his willingness to work on immigration reform.  President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi were all quick to bring up immigration reform when discussing Cantor, sidestepping discussing Cantor specifically and instead using the press moment to talk about an issue they’re all passionate about.  And because politicians of their skill-level don’t do anything by accident with the press, there’s a method here.

The method is two-fold.  One, immigration reform polls well with the general electorate, but not with the conservative electorate.  In a way similar to how gay marriage has put Republicans between a rock-and-a-hard place (they can’t support it for the primary, they need to support it for the general), immigration reform has become something that a Republican can barely make it through a primary supporting but they need to support it if they want to compete nationally (particularly keeping in mind the growing Latino/Hispanic population across the country, particularly in the Southwest).

The second method, though, is turnout.  The Democrats, as has been evidenced in 2008 and 2012, have a winning coalition if they can stack turnout, but they cannot seem to get voters out in Midterm elections.  One group that particularly under-indexes when it comes to turnout is Hispanic voters.  With Brat in Virginia, Chris McDaniel in Mississippi, and Tom Tancredo quite possibly in Colorado, there’s a number of vehemently anti-immigration politicians on the ballot this year, and with Republicans being unable to push legislation through the Congress on the issue, this is a great way for Democrats to trumpet a popular issue that will (in particular) help them with an electorate that supports Democrats quite strongly but doesn’t always vote.

The question is, though, in a midterm, where precisely will it help?  Thanks to gerrymandering, most districts with large Hispanic populations already have a Democratic congressman.  There are, however, certain districts where immigration reform and an increased turnout by Hispanic/Latino voters would be wildly beneficial for the Democrats.  No district better illustrates this than California’s 21st, where Amanda Renteria just became the luckiest person no one is discussing in the Cantor fallout.  The district went for President Obama by 11 points in 2012 (one of the rare districts to see an increase in the President’s performance over 2008) and more importantly for this discussion, has an astounding 71% Hispanic population.  Thanks to a poor candidate two years ago, the Democrats got walloped here, but Renteria is a much improved candidate and this may be the best sleeper race of the cycle, particularly if immigration reform becomes an issue more candidates are talking about.

Though no district rivals Renteria’s, there are several other Republican-held districts that could benefit the Democrats if the conservative’s move further right on immigration reform.  Amongst those with Hispanic populations over 40% are California-31 (49.4%), California-10 (40.1%), and New Mexico-2 (47.3%).  In addition to these pickup opportunities, Reps. Raul Ruiz (CA-36), Joe Garcia (FL-26), and Pete Gallego (TX-23) all represent tight races that have 40%+ Hispanic populations, and could greatly benefit from an increase in their turnout (in addition, people like Kyrsten Sinema and Andrew Romanoff, while not over 40%, have a large enough Hispanic population in their district that this could make a difference).

Looking at statewide elections, the only state with a Hispanic population of more than 40% is New Mexico, which won’t host a competitive election this cycle.  However, if you look north of 20% of the population of the state, you have a few pivotal races, none more so than Colorado.  With Tom Tancredo at the top of the ticket, Rep. Cory Gardner would have to be running alongside one of the most vehemently anti-immigration voices in the country.  In a state with 20.7% of the population being Hispanic, this could be a huge factor for Mark Udall.  Udall is clearly aware of this, making a number of attacks on Gardner in the wake of the Cantor defeat, focusing almost exclusively on immigration.  Like Renteria, Udall could well benefit from the Cantor defeat in a way no Virginia Democrat will remotely be able to do.  Gardner is unique amongst congressional Republicans this year in that he’s the only member of the House running for higher office in a state with a significant Hispanic population (for comparison’s sake the next highest would be Jack Kingston in Georgia, which has less than half the Hispanic population of Colorado).

So, while the Democrats seem unlikely to score any immediate victories in Virginia as a result of Eric Cantor’s loss, there could still be seats to gain with a shift in the national conversation toward immigration.  If Mark Udall and Amanda Renteria win in November, they could well owe David Brat a thank you note.

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