Rising Tide

In 2002 and 2004, Republicans won on national security and terrorism. In 2006, they thought they could use illegal immigration to win again. Yet being tough on illegal immigrants did not turn out to be the Hail Mary pass that could galvanize the conservative base to save the Republican majorities in Congress. Instead, it may have added to the points scored by Democrats with another part of the electorate -- Hispanic voters.

In Democratic campaign headquarters across the country in November 2007, amid the general glee as results came in, there was an additional reason to crow: initial post-election analysis indicated that Hispanics had returned to the Democratic column. In 2004, the Republicans touted the inroads made in the Hispanic community when President Bush received about 40 percent of the Latino vote, an increase of about 10 percentage points over 2000. Yet in 2006, Latinos preferred Democratic candidates at rates, in high-profile races, like 67 percent, reelecting Governor Napolitano of Arizona, and 73 percent for Democratic Senate candidate Bob Menendez in New Jersey. Broadly speaking, Latinos increased their support for Democratic candidates nationally to 69 percent as compared to 58 percent in 2004, based on statewide exit polls, and compared to 61 percent in 2002.

This shift is not insubstantial, especially at a time when local and national elections are so tight. But it's too soon to crow. Before Democrats start to count on the Hispanic vote as a solid Democratic block, they need to look carefully at who Hispanic voters are, and what brings them to the polls. Something surprising that they may find is that Hispanic voters have a nuanced view of immigration reform, overall rejecting harsh reform measures but not opposing more moderate efforts to contain immigration.

The Hispanic population constitutes about 14.6 percent of the total United States population (as compared to 65 percent white and 12.3 percent black), but because many are not citizens and many others are under 18, the percentages of eligible voters and registered voters are low. Even so, there are about 8.4 million unregistered eligible voters that political parties and activists are keenly interested in wooing. Additionally, as Latinos have settled in the South and Midwest, expanding beyond the traditional New York, California, Texas, and New Mexico, the potential impact of even a small increase in voting participation by this population generates nervous attention from politicians at all levels of government.

And what do these voters want? The vast majority of Hispanic eligible voters, about 75 percent, are native-born, and of that number, 48 percent are third generation or more. For these voters, attacks on illegal immigration may not necessarily generate the same reaction across the Latino community. This is certainly true on the question of language -- by the third generation, less than 5 percent of Americans of Hispanic descent speak Spanish. Certainly, the further removed from the immigrant generation, the less in common Hispanic-Americans may have with the recent arrivals, including being able to communicate.

These facts may help explain why Republican Senator Jon Kyl, of Arizona, with his strong anti-immigrant positions, nonetheless received 41 percent of the Hispanic vote. This might be surprising, since Arizona is the home of the Minutemen, self-appointed guards along the Mexican border. But the sizeable number of Hispanic voters in Arizona (17 percent of the total population) didn't decisively reject a politician with extreme views like Senator Kyl's. Hispanics also voted 48 percent in favor of a state-wide initiative making English the official language. While technically unrelated to immigration enforcement, English-only initiatives like this one are often proxies for concern that immigration -- illegal and legal -- is out of control.

Yet before restrictionists can claim victory, in this very same border state, a founder of the Minutemen who ran primarily on an anti-immigrant platform, Republican Randy Graf, lost decisively to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords for an open House seat. Giffords is an advocate for comprehensive reform, including legalization for millions of undocumented workers. This district had an 18 percent Latino population and Giffords' nuanced approach was appreciated by Hispanic and other voters. Equally important, in a stunning upset, Republican incumbent J.D. Hayworth, also campaigning hard against illegal immigration, lost to comprehensive immigration reform advocate and Democrat Harry Mitchell.

These outcomes, borne out in other races across the country, show that illegal immigration was not the "gay marriage" issue of 2006 -- it did not clinch the Republican base. They also show that a balanced approach to immigration, including legalization of millions, is not the Achilles heel that some Democrats have feared. Fifty percent of the Hispanic electorate is either foreign born, or with at least one foreign-born parent. For that part of the electorate, the harsh immigration views of some politicians may be a negative or at least a motivator to participate in elections. In a national poll conducted just before the election by National Council of La Raza and National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, 50 percent of Hispanic registered and likely voters indicated that they were "more enthusiastic" about voting this year than in previous elections. And 75 percent of respondents "rated their interest in the election between 8 and 10" as compared to 6 when polled in late September 2006. Also, though only 9 percent of those polled listed immigration as their most important issue, ranking education, economy and jobs, and the war in Iraq as more important, more than half of those responding said that immigration was the most or one of the most important issues deciding their vote.

These nuances are evident in the results in two Colorado races. In the 7th congressional district there, Democrat Ed Perlmutter was routinely attacked for being soft on illegal immigration. In a district where the previous Republican member, Beauprez, had won by 55 percent, where registered Republicans outnumbered registered Democrats by 36 percent to 30 percent, and where 16 percent of the electorate was Hispanic, Perlmutter won hands down by 55 percent to 42 percent. Perlmutter supported comprehensive immigration reform, trusting voters to understand that providing a path to legalization for the currently undocumented and stronger employer enforcement was a more realistic solution to the problem than O'Donnell's proposals which included sending high school senior boys to the border to help build their character by patrolling the border to combat illegal immigration.

In Colorado's 4th district, where 17 percent of voters are Latino, Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave squeaked by Democratic challenger Angie Paccione, 46 percent to 43 percent. Paccione ran a campaign that included running tough anti-illegal immigrant ads that stressed enforcement. Key in this election was the third party candidate Eric Eidsness, who walked away with 11 percent of the vote. Initial analysis indicates that about 14 percent of the Hispanic vote went to Eidsness. While the ultimate result in this race cannot be completely attributed to Paccione's tough anti-immigrant stance, it certainly seemed to have been in the mix.

Finally, in the hotly contested and closely-watched 11th District in California, incumbent Richard Pombo lost to Democrat Jerry McNerney*, 53 percent to 47 percent. While most of the attention on this race was focused on Pombo's terrible environmental record and his connections to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, we shouldn't ignore the 19.7 percent Hispanic population in that district. Notwithstanding that this district counts agriculture as one of its top industries, and is heavily dependent on undocumented Hispanic farmworkers, Pombo refused to endorse proposals that would have legalized that workforce. There were several voter registration and mobilization efforts targeted to Latino voters and preliminary and unofficial results seem to show that Hispanics overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidate.

The only way to reconcile these various results in Arizona, Colorado, California and across the country is to go back to the basics -- Hispanics are diverse: linguistically, ethnically, and in terms of how long they've lived in the United States. Thus, the support for English-only among Hispanics in Arizona can be understood if one realizes that there is a significant part of the Hispanic electorate in Arizona that has been in the country for more than three generations. But those same Hispanics understand the differences between the negative attacks by Republicans Graff and Hayworth, and chose the Democratic candidates who offered more balanced and nuanced approaches. And while Hispanics in Colorado's 4th also share some of those same characteristics with Arizona Hispanics, they seem to have been turned off by Paccione's anti-immigrant rhetoric and some of them decided to support the third-party candidate, rather than the Democrat.

Looking to 2008, it's clear that aggressive anti-immigrant positions run the risk of alienating at least some part of the Hispanic electorate. They may also unwittingly motivate previously uninvolved Hispanic citizens to register and vote. (This was certainly true among young Hispanic voters, ages 18 to 24 in 2006; many participated in the mass immigrant mobilizations this spring -- for many this was their first foray in civic engagement and inspired them to register to vote on behalf of non-citizen parents and relatives. ) The wise candidate will learn from the Republican mistakes of 2006: on immigration, harsh reform is no solution, but moderate, comprehensive reform just might be.

Maria Echaveste, a Prospect board member, is the former deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and the co-founder of the Washington consulting group Nueva Vista.

* Spelling corrected from the original text.

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