For the last 20 years – ever since passage in 1994 of California’s abortive anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 – Democrats here and around the nation have increasingly depended on Latino votes.
Election results last fall showed what happens to Democrats when they somehow disconnect with Hispanics or take them for granted: they lose, or narrowly avert defeat.
Barack Obama knew he risked alienating this ever-more vital
voting bloc last fall, when he delayed his executive order exempting about 5 million undocumented immigrants from possible deportation until after the election. But several Democratic senators who knew they’d have close races in swing states had implored him to wait.
So he did and they all lost anyway. Meanwhile, Latinos, feeling they’d been betrayed and taken for granted, stayed home. There is some uncertainty whether Democratic incumbents would have done better or worse in states like Colorado and North Carolina, both places that Latino votes helped put in the Obama column in 2012, had he acted sooner. But no one also can be sure whether an earlier immigration order would have pushed even more non-Latinos to vote Republican.
But there is no doubt Latino voters stayed home in droves last year, not only in those states but also in California.
Democrats didn’t lose any congressional seats here last year, as they did in states like Nevada and Florida, both of which saw Latino turnout fall far below 2012 levels. But they came very close in several California districts with large Hispanic populations. Had Latinos turned out in larger numbers, people like Jim Costa, Scott Peters, Julia Brownley and Ami Bera never would have been threatened. As it was, they had to wait weeks after the election to learn they’d narrowly survived.
The lesson for Democrats was plain: They must do all they can to keep Latino enthusiasm for them high.
This means they must keep moving on immigration or at least force Republicans to take stands against giving illegals a pathway to citizenship, something Obama could not do on his own. Why? Because reliable polling shows about 65 percent of Latino registered voters (all of them U.S. citizens) say they know someone who is undocumented, an increase of 10 percent from three years ago. And because 40 percent of those same voters say they know someone who either now faces deportation or did before Obama’s order.
So Democrats are acting. They’re sponsoring comprehensive immigration reform bills in both houses of Congress even though they know nothing like that will pass. Doing this has already put Republicans on the record against change.
Democrats also named New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Lujan as the head of their overall 2016 congressional campaign. Lujan, son of a New Mexico state House speaker and cousin to both a current New Mexico congresswoman and the eponymous onetime New Mexico congressman and secretary of the Interior, was reelected last year mostly because he carried a huge majority of the Latino vote in his district.
That’s a necessity for Democrats who want to avoid losses or a post-election month of nail biting. Only about 8 percent of the national electorate was Latino last fall, the worst showing for the ethnic group in 14 years and the first time in a generation its percentage of the vote has dropped. Latinos made up 10 percent of the national electorate in 2012, and about 14 percent in California.
There was no presidential race last year and voting turnout for all groups invariably drops in midterm elections, but this was still a remarkably low vote.
So Democrats next year will target Hispanic-oriented districts they lost this time, meaning Central Valley Republicans Jeff Denham and David Valadao can once again expect to be targeted. It hasn’t worked before, and neither voted for the House GOP’s bill aiming to kill Obama’s immigration order. Both know the growing Latino presence in their districts could endanger them.
But much depends on who draws the major party nominations for president. If Republicans tab former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a fluent Spanish speaker with a Latina wife and no anti-immigration rhetoric, the Democratic task gets tougher. But a Rand Paul or a Ted Cruz atop the GOP might be suicidal in an era when Latino votes have the influence displayed last year.