Will Insult and Inaction on Immigration Cost Republicans the Senate?

The 2010 midterm elections were a resounding victory for Republicans--they took control of the House of Representatives with a net gain of 63 seats, the biggest mid-term House pick-up since the Great Depression, and won control of 29 state governorships, putting them in the driver's seat for the 2011 redistricting process.

Yet Republicans did not gain control of the US Senate, thanks in no small part to Latino voters. Repelled by the anti-immigrant demagoguery of Republican Senate candidates such as Sharon Angle and Ken Buck, Hispanic voters helped Democrats Harry Reid and Michael Bennet win tightly contested races in Nevada and Colorado. More than 90% of Latinos voted for Reid after Angle ran a series of offensive campaign ads portraying undocumented immigrants as gang-bangers. Bennet captured 81% of the Hispanic vote.

Fast forward to 2014, and Republicans again have a shot at recapturing the Senate. Yet once again, Republicans have dusted off their hard-line immigration playbook--blocking the passage of comprehensive immigration reform; pushing for repeal the President's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program; and voting to deport unaccompanied minors rather than protect their right to due process. While House Republicans are responsible for most of this activity, their decision to kowtow to the worst prejudices and fears of the Republican base tarnishes the Republican brand with Hispanic voters.

Could Republican fear-mongering on immigration cost Republicans the Senate in 2014, as it did in 2010? To retake the Senate, Republicans need to win at least half of six key Senate races in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, and North Carolina. The Latino vote will be pivotal in Colorado, where Hispanics comprise approximately 10% of the electorate. In the other states the Hispanic vote is admittedly modest, but in a tight race could be a difference maker. For example, Latinos comprise relatively modest shares of the electorate in Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina; yet aggregated poll data show the Senate candidates in these states separated by a razor-thin 1% margin. Those who doubt that a small Latino electorate can make a difference in a tight race need only look to last year's Governor's race in Virginia, where in an off-year election Latino voters comprised nearly two thirds of Terry McCauliffe's slim 56,494 vote margin of victory.

Continued Republican demagoguery on the issue of immigration will alienate Latino voters, and could be costly in pivotal Senate races. But Democrats need to give Latino voters a clear alternative, lest they decide to sit home on Election Day--Obama, after all, has deported 400,000 immigrants every year since he took office. That is where Obama's promise to use executive action to provide administrative relief to millions of undocumented immigrants fits in. In 2012, Obama's decision to implement the DACA program galvanized Latino voters. Polling shows executive action to create DACA-like programs that would lift the threat of deportation from and provide hope to other aspiring Americans would increase Latino support for Democrats in 2014.

It's a toss-up which party will control the Senate, but Latino voters will be a factor. And even if Republicans do manage to win the Senate, insult and inaction on immigration will likely hurt their chances to win the Presidency in 2016. The longer Republicans persist in scapegoating immigrants rather than supporting immigration reform that restores the rule of law, reunites families, and bolsters the economy, the more they will cement their status as the minority party in American politics.

- Loren McArthur, NCLR Action Fund Contributor