Federal immigration reform may swing Western elections | VailDaily.com

Federal immigration reform may swing Western elections

Michael Riley
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado

WASHINGTON – The decision by Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate to quickly take up immigration reform could scramble election-year races throughout the West, creating the potential for political upheaval in states with large Latino populations and a history of bitter feelings.

Chief among those states are Colorado, Nevada and California, where the legislation is meant to seize what some Democrats see as an unexpected political advantage in a year where those have been rare.

Combined with a backlash against a new Arizona law requiring legal immigrants to carry papers at all times, Democrats are taking what many concede is a political gamble with a volatile issue: They hope to fire up Latino and liberal voters while pillorying Republican candidates for backing racial profiling, even de facto discrimination.

The immigration package rolled out by Senate Democrats on Thursday – which aims to strengthen border security, create a tamper-proof Social Security card and potentially legalize millions of immigrants after they pay back-taxes and pass a criminal background check – so far has no Republican backers, only heightening the divide.

“Who throws the long pass? It’s the team that’s behind,” said Dan Schnur, former aide to GOP Gov. Pete Wilson in California and to John McCain during his 2000 presidential run.

“But it’s hard to see what the other options are,” he said, noting the slew of Democratic candidates in trouble in the West. “Alienating the center is a risk, but when you’re operating at a disadvantage, taking that sort of a risk becomes a lot more necessary.”

“Harry Reid’s calculus”

Schnur pointed to the Proposition 187 debate in California more than a decade ago, when a highly energized Latino base helped unhinge Republican dominance in the state, even though the majority of voters approved of denying public education and health services to illegal immigrants.

But if Congress’ legislative agenda suddenly seems tailored to the political exigencies of Democrats in the West, that’s not an accident.

The man most responsible for putting the issue on the forefront in Congress is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is sagging in the polls in his re-election bid and is among the most vulnerable lawmakers in the Senate.

Nevada political analysts say that with swing voters trending Republican in the state, Reid is calculating that taking up immigration will provide a badly needed boost in liberal and Latino voter turnout back home.

“Harry Reid’s calculus is very simple. He can’t win unless the base gets out,” said Jon Ralston, a Las Vegas political columnist. “He needs huge, huge Democratic turnout in an off-year when it’s usually not that large. I think he’s going to play this issue to the hilt.”

And Democratic strategists are betting that what works in Nevada may also work elsewhere, helping candidates like Barbara Boxer in California, Michael Bennet in Colorado and gubernatorial candidates in both of those states.

But even at that, many Democrats say it’s a white-knuckle decision, more akin to tossing gasoline on a fire, the resulting political flare as unpredictable as it is powerful.

A heated immigration debate in an already scorched political year is likely to motivate conservative voters as much as it does Latinos. And strategists on both sides say it’s nearly impossible to tell at this point how it will play with critical voters in the center.

Republicans risk looking like the party of shrill intolerance. Democrats risk looking as if they are, in the words of one national party strategist, “coddlers of criminals.”

“It may be a complete wash,” said the Democratic strategist, requesting anonymity in order to speak freely. “If it’s going to help somebody, it’s probably going to be somebody in the Southwest or the Rockies or the West Coast, where the communities are huge, the attitudes already inflamed, and it will give Hispanics incentive to turn out in some way like they did two years ago.”

He also said that it didn’t matter whether immigration reform passed, only that Democrats championed it.

“Simply politically speaking, this is about letting the Hispanic community be reminded of who is not their friend.”

Reach out or hold on to base?

Republicans are having to make tricky calculations as well, trading off the risk of alienating base voters against the need to hold support among some Latinos.

In Colorado, the top three GOP Senate candidates backed the Arizona law, and gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis said he would support a version of it for Colorado.

In Nevada, the GOP candidates for governor have split on the issue, while in California both Republican candidates have said they don’t support the Arizona approach.

“Both parties face the exact same dilemma when dealing with this issue. Is it more important to motivate your base or reach out to the center? ” said Schnur, the former GOP aide, who now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

“These issues are terrific ways to turn out your most loyal supporters. But they are just as terrific at driving undecided and centrist voters in the other direction,” he said.

Michael Riley: 202-662-8907 or mriley@denverpost.com

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