NATIONAL POLITICS

In tight Senate races, immigration could still be a priority issue

Some Republicans say immigration is still a hot-button issue in tight Senate races

When the U.S. Senate race in Arkansas heated up this summer, Mark Pryor found himself under attack from his opponent with a nasty — and inaccurate — ad claiming that the Democrat had supported giving Social Security benefits to people who had forged identities to work in the U.S. illegally. In Georgia, Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn has been fending off charges that she is "pro-amnesty."

And here in New Hampshire, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen saw her reelection race tighten after Republican Scott Brown launched a barrage of ads faulting her 2010 vote for the Dream Act, which would have granted legal status to some young immigrants.

Earlier this month, Obama acceded to pleas from a number of vulnerable Democrats to delay until after the November election his promise to use executive power to transform the nation's immigration system. Though the delay angered some activists, many Democrats in tight races were relieved, hoping that his announcement would cool some of the heat of an issue that could energize the GOP base, particularly in states with low numbers of Latino voters.

But Republicans insist that immigration remains a potent issue in many contested Senate races. The president, they note, merely postponed his threat to use his executive power, and could well grant legal status to as many as several million people now here illegally. Though it is Republicans who have stalled immigration reform in the House, they believe Obama's delay has given them a new opening to attack Democrats — for addressing issues affecting Latinos only when it is politically convenient. Potentially at stake is control of the Senate, which Republicans will seize if they gain six seats.

Days after the White House announced the delay, Brown laced into Obama and Shaheen in his primary night victory speech in New Hampshire, faulting their "failed policies on immigration" for the surge of unaccompanied minors who came across the border from Central America. (He did not mention that a law encouraging unaccompanied minors to seek refuge in the U.S. passed under President Bush, a fellow Republican.)

"A nation without borders is not a nation at all," Brown said as he previewed his case against Democratic incumbent Shaheen in a state where a mere 3.2% of the population is Latino. "In Washington, what are they doing? They're only inviting more chaos at the border by creating amnesty."

"You have someone before you who will do everything in my power to secure our borders," Brown said to cheers in Concord, "to make sure that you, and everybody else, is safe and secure when you travel around our country."

Those kinds of lines are playing well for Republicans in competitive Senate races across the country, where the midterm electorate is typically more white and conservative than in presidential years.

Some Republican strategists fear that the hard line adopted by Republicans such as Brown and Tom Cotton, who is running against incumbent Pryor in Arkansas, could further alienate the GOP from Latino voters, who are key to their hopes of regaining the White House in 2016.

But demographics are on their side this year. Latinos make up 5% or less of eligible voters in eight of nine keenly watched Senate races: Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan and North Carolina. The lone exception is Colorado, where 14.2% of eligible voters are Latino, making it the one contested state where Obama's delay in fulfilling his promise could actually hurt the Democrat, incumbent Mark Udall.

"Certainly in a place like Colorado, it could make a difference, partly because there are some Hispanic leaders who have said maybe Latinos should not turn out to vote," said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center.

Udall's campaign said the senator was disappointed by Obama's decision not to act on immigration before the election. His opponent, Republican Cory Gardner, has charged that Udall and Obama are looking at the issue through "the lens of politics," but he has been far more careful in his critical statements than some GOP candidates in other states. (In explaining his decision, Obama said that before he would act he wanted to ensure the public "understands what the facts are on immigration.")

There are long-term risks for Democrats too. While Latinos continue to blame Republicans more than Democrats for the deadlock on immigration reform, they showed mounting frustration with Obama and his party in Pew's polling late last year, particularly because of concern about the rising number of deportations in recent years.

During the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, Pew's surveys showed that Latinos felt Democrats cared more about their welfare and concerns than Republicans. But Lopez says that gap has narrowed.

"While Democrats are still seen as the party that has more concern for the community, the percent of Hispanics who say that has actually come down from its highs a few years ago," he said. "Latinos are increasingly disappointed with both parties overall, and increasingly disappointed with both parties on the [immigration] issue."

It is only because of the quirk in scheduling that Republicans face what appears to be minimal risk of a November backlash to highlighting the border crisis. No contested races are taking place in states like Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, where Latinos make up a larger share of the electorate.

Even in states like North Carolina and Georgia, where the Latino population is growing rapidly, the actual number of registered Latino voters is quite small. In Georgia, 1.7% of registered voters are Latino; in North Carolina it is 1.9%.

In Louisiana, where Latinos make up only 2.8% of eligible voters, the absence of substantial pressure to support immigration reform has allowed Democrat Mary L. Landrieu to accent conservative positions on the issue.

The Louisiana senator, who must win more than 50% of the vote in the Nov. 4 election to avoid a runoff, released an ad arguing that her likely rival, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, has not been strong enough on border security.

The ad, which notes that Landrieu supported triple-layer fencing and has opposed amnesty, strikes a starkly different tone than her 2013 floor speech backing immigration reform. Back then she said "the dumb fence" was a waste of money. But this is an election year.

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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