When House Speaker John Boehner announced on Thursday that comprehensive immigration reform was unlikely to pass this year, the news sunk Democrats in the House and the Senate who had spent well over a year working on the bill. But it may prove to be a lifeline. Why? Because Democrats in the Senate are facing an awful difficult electoral environment in which to defend their 55-45 majority. According to political forecasts, six of the seats most likely to flip—and nine of the top 11—are held by Democrats.
Now Democrats in D.C and on the ground in battleground states are wondering if they have a weapon to motivate their base voters—especially Latinos—during a typically low turnout midterm election cycle.
“It takes a lot to build a voter mobilization infrastructure. It doesn’t just happen overnight, but once it is built, the message practically writes itself,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, which has been pushing hard for reform over the last year. That message, he said, could simply be: “This party blocked reform. They don’t like your kind. Stand up for your community and vote.”
There is irony to be found in the House Republicans' will to table immigration reform, because politically, it is in their immediate short term interest to do so. Due to the latest round of redistricting, most Republicans are in districts with very few Democrats, let alone Latinos. Passing immigration reform could open incumbents up to primary challenges, and either way would risk diluting the GOP message in a year in which Democrats seem to be on the ropes. There is a sense among top level Republicans that eventually—by 2016, if not soon after—will have to deal with immigration reform in order to start making inroads with a rapidly growing slice of the electorate. But, the bet has been that the time is not yet.
Democrats believe that calculation to be wrong. They point to the 2010 electorate, where Latino voters saved Harry Reid of Nevada and Michael Bennet of Colorado from near certain defeat.
This time around though, Republicans are quick to point out, the Democrats battle to hold the Senate will be fought not in the heavily Hispanic states of the Mountain West, but in deeply conservative states of the Deep South, places where Latinos vote live and vote in much smaller numbers.
There is North Carolina, for example, currently held by Democrat Kay Hagan, where Latinos made up only three percent of the electorate, according to Latino Decisions, a polling firm. In Louisiana, where Mary Landrieu’s numbers are dragged down by her support of the Affordable Care Act, the percentage of the Latino vote in 2012 was also three percent, and the numbers are similar in places like Alaska, Montana and Arkansas, where incumbent Democrats are similarly engaged in uphill battles. In Georgia, where Democrats hope to get some insurance by stealing a seat held by retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss, the Latino vote is only two percent.
But Democratic operatives say that if they just motivate the same raw number of Latinos to vote in 2014 as they did in 2012, the overall softening of turnout will give the party a head start in what are expected to be block-by-block, state-by-state street fights for control of the upper chamber.
Democratic pollsters say that the GOP’s dance around a comprehensive immigration reform bill—holding out a list of principles one week, announcing that the bill is dead the next—could energize the Latino base in a way that merely letting the bill whither would not have. And they are relying on outside groups to motivate voters and take the message to them, including the Service Employees International Union, Mi Familia Vota and the National Council of La Raza.
“If this goes down, Republicans have the most to lose with these emerging electorates,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, the NCLR’s director of state and national campaigns. “This is a self-inflicted wound. What they do for the next ten months will shape politics for the next ten years.”
If the percentage of Latino voters in the battleground states is relatively small, Democrats say that the immigration issue will play into their larger 2014 message—that on the debt ceiling, the environment, the economy and a whole host of issues, the GOP is the party of obstruction. This way, the coalition heading into 2014 will include not just a motivated Latino base, but young people, liberals and even a few moderates disgusted with the gridlock.
This, they say, was the coalition that vaulted Terry MacAuliffe into the governorship of Virginia against hard-line anti-immigration reform attorney general Ken Cucinelli, even though as a purely state matter immigration was not on the ballot.
“I think Republican intransigence on this issue deepens the unpopularity of the House Republican brand,” said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. “Most Republican Senate candidates are House Republicans. We saw in 2012 that being a House Republican is a really bad thing when you are running for the Senate.”
Democrats do not seem to be waiting. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Sen. Chuck Schumer attempted to call the bluff of Republicans who say that they do not trust Obama to enforce any new immigration laws. Under the New York Democrat's plan, no new immigration laws would take effect until 2017, after Obama was out of office. The plan was rejected by a House Republican spokesman.
Democrats also have a difficult needle to thread, though. In order to boost Latino turnout to record highs, they will need to pound away on the immigration issue from now until November. But they will have to do so in such a way as to not alienate working class voters who fear that newly legalized immigrants will compete with them for jobs.
“I don’t think either side wants to open that lid,” said Michael Beychok, a Democratic in consultant in Louisiana. “I don’t think either side thinks they can get an advantage with it. But I will say that it is a growing vote within the electorate, but we may be another cycle away from saying that immigration can really drive an election.”