With images of menacing, tattooed Latinos and beleaguered whites, the TV ad contended that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was too soft on illegal immigrants. “It’s clear whose side he’s on,” the announcer said, “and it’s not yours.”
Sharron Angle, a “tea party” favorite and Reid’s Republican challenger, had attempted to pummel Reid for his support for legalizing illegal immigrants. But Angle paid a price for her tough stance when Nevada’s Latino voters came out in record numbers last week and helped Reid win a fifth term.
Across the country, Lou Barletta, the mayor of a small Pennsylvania city who is best known for backing a law forbidding property owners from renting to illegal immigrants, had little difficulty winning election to the House of Representatives.
A look at the electoral map shows that, outside selected parts of the Southwest, few Republican candidates this year paid a price for adopting a hard-line immigration stance.
The reason is that most of the historic wave that swept Democrats from office last week was in Midwestern or Rust Belt states, where Latinos make up only a fragment of the voting population. For example, Democrats lost five House seats, a Senate seat and the governorship in Pennsylvania, where only 3% of eligible voters are Latino.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook report who tracks congressional races, has a message to activists who contend immigration is the Democrats’ salvation: Don’t hold your breath.
“You’ve got to have states where [immigration] matters, where that Latino vote is enough to tip races,” Duffy said. “Those states are in the West.”
Although Latinos have been moving to more remote parts of the country in recent years, many may be too young to vote or may lack citizenship status. That makes it even tougher to replicate the Western experience in places such as Pennsylvania, she said.
“Not only do they not have the Latino vote to help, they have an illegal immigrant problem,” Duffy said of Democrats. “It’s a double whammy.”
Analysts agree that most voters do not choose candidates based solely on their immigration position. In exit polls this year, only 8% of voters nationwide said immigration was their top issue. Latino voters placed immigration well behind the economy and jobs.
Barletta, a Republican, said immigration never really factored into his successful race against veteran Democratic Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski. “The issue really took a back seat to jobs, the economy and healthcare,” he said in a telephone interview.
Still, Barletta first came to wider fame because of his work on the immigration ordinance in the city of Hazleton, and said he was often approached by voters who favored his position.
A hard-line immigration stance has become almost standard for GOP candidates nationally, as an older generation that backed immigration reform is pushed out by conservative activists. Even though it wasn’t the centerpiece of their agenda, GOP candidates weren’t shy about talking about the need to secure the border or their backing of Arizona’s controversial new immigration law.
The election pushed Congress sharply to the right on immigration matters. Numbers USA, which advocates tougher immigration restrictions, estimates that 40 congressional representatives and senators who favored some sort of legal residency for illegal immigrants were replaced by hardliners this election.
Some of those new Republican officeholders are themselves Latino. Raul Labrador, an immigration attorney of Puerto Rican descent, ousted Democrat Rep. Walt Minnick in Idaho while declaring in his formal immigration policy statement: “Illegal is illegal!”
Susana Martinez of New Mexico became the first Latina governor in the nation after criticizing her Democratic predecessor’s decision to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Brian Sandoval won the governorship in Nevada and Marco Rubio a Senate seat in Florida.
“I think what you’re seeing is that there is no longer the notion that if you have a Spanish surname, you must be a Democrat,” said Javier Ortiz, an Atlanta-based GOP operative who has been working to get Republican Latinos elected.
Still, polls show Latinos are fairly reliably in the Democratic column. Jill Hanauer of Project New West, which tracks Western political trends, said that Latino candidates like Martinez and Rubio are notable because they were able to oppose immigration reform in a way that did not alienate the Latino electorate.
“In Nevada and Colorado, you had candidates use immigration to really motivate angry white voters,” Hanauer said. The Latino Republicans “didn’t go over the line.”
Even so, Sandoval got 33% of the Latino vote in exit polls, and Martinez 38%.
The damage the immigration issue inflicted on Western Republicans was not limited to Nevada. In California, Latinos overwhelmingly backed Democrats Jerry Brown for governor and Barbara Boxer for Senate over Republicans who struggled to sell their tough stance on illegal immigration.
In Colorado’s Senate race, Republican challenger Ken Buck had a record of being aggressive in immigration enforcement as a district attorney, and he narrowly lost. Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, a vocal foe of illegal immigration, lost his bid for governor here, though he ran a quixotic third-party campaign and was never given much chance of winning.
Arizona was another story. In the epicenter of the immigration fight this year, Republicans swept statewide races and picked up two congressional seats after backing its new immigration law. Gov. Jan Brewer, who became a celebrity after signing the measure in April, coasted to reelection.
Steve Camarota at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which advocates for tougher immigration restrictions, said that it was obvious that enforcement was more popular politically than legalization because Democrats didn’t push legalization when Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) was speaker of the House.
“If she thought it was a political winner, don’t you think she’d have brought it up?” Camarota said.
Matea Gold in Washington contributed to this report.