Rose Segovia offers a one-word answer when asked what she will be thinking about on election day: “Immigration,” the homemaker said as she heaved a Wal-Mart bag into her battered burgundy minivan.
An unaffiliated Mexican American voter, Segovia was unsettled by the tone the Republicans took in this summer’s contentious debate over immigration. “They are treating Hispanics incredibly mean, and we work hard,” she said.
Segovia says politicians -- and she includes Democrats -- have charged the atmosphere with such hostility that a stranger recently ordered Segovia to speak English as she helped a Spanish-speaking immigrant at the hospital.
“It’s prejudice,” said the mother of three and wife of a legal Mexican immigrant.
The faltering Iraq war and corruption scandals have pushed aside immigration reform in many congressional contests, but it remains a boiling issue in Denver’s suburbs, where more than a quarter of the residents are Latino. In the race for the open House seat here, that debate could determine who goes to Washington. Former state Sen. Ed Perlmutter, the Democrat, has a slight lead in recent polls over Republican Rick O’Donnell, chairman of the state’s Higher Education Commission.
Republicans made immigration a central issue for 2006, calling for tough enforcement and a 700-mile border fence. But that stance, meant to rouse the party’s conservatives, may backfire. Ethics scandals have alienated many core GOP voters, while the immigration debate has angered Latinos who tilt Republican and energized those who don’t.
With civic groups working to draw Latinos to the polls on Nov. 7, the fallout from the immigration debate could tip elections not only in Colorado, but in Arizona and Illinois as well.
The nonpartisan Democracia USA announced last week that it had registered 105,000 Latino voters in Arizona, Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which all have tight congressional races.
In the 7th District, which rings Denver and stretches east into the plains, Latinos could wield 10% of the vote. In the unusual district, which is evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents, that gives them enormous power to influence the outcome.
Both candidates highlight their conflicting views on immigration, but tread carefully, trying not to alienate moderate voters.
Tanned and energetic, the 36-year-old O’Donnell wears his button-down shirts tie-less, the better to telegraph a fresh approach to politics. He borrows from the GOP playbook on enforcement, but softens the pitch, saying he worries about the exploitation of illegal immigrants.
But O’Donnell also opposes guest worker programs and mocks his opponent’s support for “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. In ads, he links Perlmutter to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a central figure behind the Senate immigration legislation and a favorite nemesis of conservatives.
“Ted and Ed’s plan? Illegal immigrants get handouts and amnesty. We get the bill,” a voice intones in one 30-second TV spot.
Perlmutter emphasizes border security and workplace enforcement, but adds that when it comes to illegal immigrants, “We’re not going to deport 12 million people. That’s not right, and that’s where most Coloradans are.”
He ridicules an O’Donnell proposal to send male high school seniors to volunteer as guards on the border. “Drafting boys to become Mexican border guards ... this is a crazy idea,” he said.
The 53-year-old, who wears jeans and leavens his speeches with wry humor, worked alongside Latinos as a teenager in his father’s cement factory. He said he sees them as “no different” than other constituents and describes immigration as “a big issue, but not the biggest.”
He also downplays his outreach to Latino voters but has overtly courted them with Spanish-language ads and appearances with Latino lawmakers, several from Los Angeles.
In that, his campaign mirrors Democratic efforts to woo Latinos, the nation’s fastest-growing ethnicity. Democrats hope the anti-immigrant tenor of the national debate will propel Latinos to the voting booth and to their party.
“There’s been a civic awakening,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, which has spent close to $2 million on Latino outreach for this election. Rosenberg points to in-house polls that show the immigration debate has made 54% of Latinos more likely to vote. “That’s a significant shift,” he said. “If Democrats make investments in this community, the benefits will be extraordinary.”
Democratic strategist Ken Strasma said that polling and voter information suggested Perlmutter would win about 68% of Latino voters.
Republicans also have pursued Latino voters, who often have conservative social views that fit the party’s agenda, but the effort disintegrated this year under the force of the immigration debate.
Colorado Republicans, however, say O’Donnell will win most of the Latino vote. Frank Tijerina Jr., the state party’s Hispanic Coalitions director, said they’re shooting for 40% to 60%.
But GOP leaders are clearly worried. “Immigration has really put a downer on things,” said Robert Martinez, chairman of the state Republican Party. “We’re throwing away tons of work we’ve put into Hispanic outreach just because of some people’s attitudes.”
Colorado Democrats may also pay a price for the immigration debate. This summer, the state’s Latinos watched their Democratic-controlled Legislature pass some of the country’s strictest immigration laws, including one that requires proof of residency for all public benefits.
The debate left some Latinos as angry at Democrats as Republicans. “I see both parties saying bad things,” said Charlie Lopez, 25, a Denver-area glass-fitter and Democrat. “It’s not fair because people are putting a bad name on us Hispanics.”
The 7th District has seen an influx of Latinos, including an estimated 40,000 illegal immigrants -- a 21% increase, according to the Immigration Policy Center. In Wheatridge, a suburb west of Denver, commercial strips feature taco joints and markets that advertise jicama.
Some Latinos feel threatened by this wave yet are angry about the way immigration is being used politically.
Guadelupe Martinez says she lost her hospital job to a Mexican, but the Denver resident of Spanish ancestry says the debate is driven by racism.
“We’re fighting for those jobs, yes, but I can see both sides,” she said. “There’s people here from Russia and Canada; they’re illegal too, and they’re taking our good jobs, and no one is saying a thing. It’s become very racial.”
Non-Latino immigrants such as Nagib Kikhia are angry as well. A native of Libya and now a U.S. citizen, Kikhia is tired of slurs against immigrants. “I hear Americans talk about immigrants, immigrants, immigrants,” the unaffiliated voter said. “These people are lazy. Do you see white people building America? No. It’s the Hispanic immigrants.”
The real estate investor said he had considered voting for O’Donnell. “I don’t want to call him racist, but I decided this year I’m going all the way Democratic,” Kikhia said.
Local groups have said that anger has pushed the Latino and immigrant community to engage politically.
“People said of Hispanics in California that ‘the giant has awakened’ ” in the wake of anti-immigration legislation in the 1990s, said Mariza Vasquez, director of Denver’s Latina Chamber. “I think that’s happening in Colorado now as well. There’s no longer a passive observance of what’s going on.”
O’Donnell says that 7th District constituents tell him illegal immigration is their primary concern. He has acted on that discontent, running ads charging Perlmutter with backing in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants.
Apart from Spanish-language media coverage of some events and Spanish-language radio interviews done by Tijerina, the Republican Party has done little outreach to Latinos.
In contrast, the Democrat’s website offers a window to “Perlmutter En Espanol.” The candidate is running ads on Spanish-language radio. And the national party has sent Spanish-speaking canvassers and Latino lawmakers, including some from Los Angeles County.
Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) shared waving duties in a parade, much of it captured by the Spanish-language TV network Univision. Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) spoke at a Democratic dinner, and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) joined the candidate to walk the district’s Latino neighborhoods.
“They’re a significant voting bloc,” Perlmutter said, “period.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Colorado’s 7th Congressional District
Registered voters: 363,065
Voting age: 73%
Note: Voters registered in seven minor parties make up 0.3% of the electorate
Language spoken at home
(5 years and older)
Median household income: $48,049
Population below poverty level: 12.1%
Sources: ESRI, TeleAtlas, USGS, U.S. Census Bureau, Colorado Secretary of State, Pew Hispanic Center.