By Carl M. Cannonm, RCP
In the days leading up to the 2010 midterm elections, an occasion when voters sent a message of rebuke to President Obama and his political party, the decidedly purple state of Colorado was too close to call.
Obama had accepted his party’s 2008 presidential nomination in Denver, the state’s capital and biggest city—it’s a Democratic stronghold as well—and rode the wave of Coloradans’ pride for their role in making U.S. history to a nine-point victory there in November that year. But 2010 was tough sledding for Democrats nationally, and the president’s popularity had waned in Colorado. Facing this GOP tsunami was Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, a low-key freshman who’d been appointed to his seat and had never run for office before. Bennet won narrowly, however, and how he did so is critical four years later.
Were women the key demographic for Bennet? Or did higher-than-expected Hispanic turnout put him over the top? It’s not an academic question: The answer may well determine whether incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall keeps his seat on Nov. 4 or loses it to Republican challenger Cory Gardner. And Colorado’s election returns, just as in eight other states rated tossups in RealClearPolitics’ poll averages, could mean the difference in control of the U.S. Senate.
It’s an article of faith among Democrats that Bennet’s challenger, Ken Buck, failed to capitalize on a strong GOP tailwind because his brand of social conservatism was too intense for single women—and the live-and-let-live types who constitute the swing vote in Colorado—and because of some unscripted comments that alienated women and, later, gay rights supporters.
In the Republican primary season, senatorial candidate Jane Norton taunted Buck by saying he should be “man enough” to run his own attack ads. Buck took the bait, but awkwardly. When a female voter at a campaign rally asked the candidate why she should support him, he replied, “Because I don’t wear high heels.” If this was a joke, no one got it, and for a party that suffers from a structural gender gap it was unwise anyway.
Then, with a couple of weeks to go in the campaign, Buck was asked by NBC’s David Gregory whether he thought homosexuality was “a choice,” Buck answered affirmatively. When pressed by Gregory whether being gay might be “determined at birth,” Buck allowed as how that was possible, and furnished a comparison—“like alcoholism,” he said.
I spent nearly an hour with an upbeat Michael Bennet in his office days before the 2010 voting, and he didn’t mention either of these gaffes. The senator did invoke his “Republican war on women” strategy, but only in passing. When I asked why he was so confident of victory, even though the public polls showed Buck with a slight lead, he was direct. “They are under-polling Hispanics,” he said.
It is possible that history is repeating itself. A spate of public opinion surveys from mid-July to mid-September had Mark Udall leading Cory Gardner by between one and six percentage points. Then a Sept. 15 Quinnipiac Poll had Gardner up by eight. Was this an outlier, or did it show movement in the electorate? Among those who didn’t believe the figure was Hoover Institution scholar Douglas Rivers, who noted that Quinnipiac’s model anticipates that Hispanics will comprise only 8 percent of the 2014 Colorado electorate. Rivers, one of the founders of a sophisticated online polling firm called YouGov, believes this number will be above 10 percent, and possibly as high as 12. Consequently, YouGov’s polls consistently show Udall with a three- or four-point advantage.
So which polling firm has it right? The exit polls on Nov. 4 will tell us more, but it’s an interesting question. Hispanics make up about 14 percent of the voting age population in Colorado and about 10 percent of the registered voters. Estimates on 2010 Latino turnout in the state vary slightly. The Center for Immigration Studies puts this number at about 8 percent. A Latino Decisions study of the election returns showed Latinos made up 10 percent of the 2010 electorate. Every percentage point matters in an election decided by some 15,000 votes, but what isn’t in doubt is the huge the share of the Latino vote that went to Bennet: Latino Decisions’ poll has this number at about 80 percent, a much greater difference than the 56-40 gender gap for Bennet among women.
Bennet’s strength with Latinos made sense. He was a co-sponsor and vocal supporter of the DREAM Act that would make it easier for immigrants brought to U.S. as children to stay in this country. Also, one of the Republican gubernatorial candidates that year was anti-illegal immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo, whose presence on the scene galvanized Colorado Hispanics in favor of all Democrats.
These feeling lingered, and they helped Obama win re-election in 2012.
“All the pre-election polls two years ago estimated the Hispanic turnout at 10 percent,” Denver Democratic political consultant Rick Ridder told me this week. “But on Election Night, the polls had actual Hispanic turnout at 12 percent. That’s the Bennet theory, that everybody’s under-sampling Hispanics—again. Everybody except Doug Rivers.”
There are several reasons to suspect Hispanic voter participation will drop off to 2010 levels—or lower—in 2014. The first is that Barack Obama, although popular among Latinos, is not on the ballot this year. A second reason is that Obama is not as popular as he was in 2012. A third reason is that the fundamentals of a midterm election tend to favor the party that doesn’t control the White House. A fourth variable, and it’s a wild card, is that the White House finessed immigration policy in a way calculated to help certain “red state” Democrats, but which could boomerang on Mark Udall.
For months, the president promised Latinos, publicly and private, that he was going to issue a bold series of executive actions intended to essentially enact the DREAM Act by fiat—and perhaps go even further in preventing deportations. But public opinion surveys revealed this to be an unpopular course in Republican-leaning states. And in several of those states, vulnerable Democratic senators are running for re-election in 2014. So the president backed away, candidly conceding that he felt constrained by the exigencies of midterm election-year politics.
In Colorado, some Hispanics blamed their old friend Michael Bennet, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for this development. Although he was instrumental in passing a sweeping immigration reform bill out of the Senate last year (it died in the Republican-controlled House), Bennet can read the polls, too, and some Latino activists believe he urged the White House to delay the long-promised executive orders until after the election. In September, Bennet’s Denver office was picketed by pro-immigration activists, a bit of street theater that would have once seemed inconceivable. But the protesters’ ire was genuine.
“How are you supposed to get people energized and mobilized when nothing is happening?” protest organizer Sonia Marquez of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition told the Denver Post. “It’s not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about who is going to follow their word.”
Although Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi insisted flatly Thursday that Bennet never urged the president to delay his executive order, the important thing from the Democrats’ standpoint was that the activists registered their displeasure with temperance. “They didn’t protest at Udall’s office, you’ll notice,” one Bennet confidant noted wryly. Cory Gardner, in any event, is not a natural vessel for Hispanic dissatisfaction: He voted against immigration reform in the House.
Meanwhile, Udall is following Bennet’s 2010 playbook, playing up the “war on women” so thoroughly that a visitor to Colorado would believe abortion is the only issue that voters in the state care about.
All this has bred subtle dissatisfaction in Colorado’s Hispanic community that may not bode well for Democrats or incumbents in the state—and Udall is both. Patty Kupfer, Denver-based managing director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group working hard to motivate Hispanics to vote Democratic, says that their canvassers have detected a coolness when they knock on doors in the state.
Few Hispanics have anything bad to say about Mark Udall, she says, but adds that her organization is encountering more undecided voters than they expected. And although it’s unlikely this discontent translates into a wave of votes for Gardner, those residents could stay home, she says, or—under Colorado’s new voting system—simply decline to mail back their ballots.
“I think that the delay in the president’s executive order was a lost opportunity to energize these voters—who were decisive in the Bennet race,” said Kupfer. “The White House just made our job that much harder.”
In 2010, after he narrowly retained his Senate seat, Michael Bennet was asked what the lesson was. “I know one thing,” he said. “Washington has a lot to learn from Colorado.” That may still be true.