Races Where Immigration Is at Center Stage

By Adam O’Neal

Rep. Pete Gallego (D) and challenger Will Hurd (R)  for TX CD-23

The second of a five-part special report, “Hispanic Voters: Trends and Opportunities,” running this week and sponsored by Univision.

A few factors typically decide the overall outcome of midterm elections: the president’s popularity, economic conditions, and candidate quality. During some election cycles, however, other issues play an outsized role in determining the balance of power in Washington.

In 2006, voters’ misgivings about the U.S. military occupation in Iraq set the tone for the election and enabled Democrats to take control of Congress. Four years later, backlash against the passage of the Affordable Care Act helped Republicans retake the House and pick up Senate seats.

No one issue has achieved national prominence this year, but it’s clear that the border crisis has millions of Americans thinking about immigration. According to a recent Gallup survey, it is now one of the top political issues for voters, second only to dissatisfaction with government.

While the debate about immigration policy may not produce an electoral wave in the same way Iraq or Obamacare did, it is already affecting several marquee elections throughout the country.

Here’s a sampling of races in which immigration remains a potentially pivotal issue:

Colorado Senate

A year ago, Sen. Mark Udall appeared poised to be re-elected easily. But the entrance of Republican Rep. Cory Gardner into the contest — as well as President Obama’s continued unpopularity in the state — has made the race a tossup. Gardner (pictured) has aligned Udall with Obama and his policies, while Udall has characterized his opponent as too conservative for the Centennial State.

But immigration may end up being the deciding factor in this closely watched contest. According to a June report from polling firm Latino Decisions, 63 percent of Colorado residents know an undocumented immigrant, and 35 percent know someone who has been deported or detained for being in the country illegally — suggesting that the issue has a personal connection to most Coloradoans. Further, Hispanics make up 14 percent of the state’s electorate.

Given that the issue resonates so strongly there it’s entirely feasible that the race could swing in either direction, based on where the candidates stand. A recent Denver Post article examined each man’s nuanced position on immigration reform. In a nutshell: Both want to see immigration reform, but Gardner’s support is more contingent upon securing the border.

Arizona Governor

Although Democrats have a strong, moderate nominee for governor in Fred DuVal, it’s likely that Arizona’s next chief executive will be the winner of this month’s GOP primary. RCP rates the red state’s gubernatorial race “leans GOP.”

And the future Republican nominee will have to credit his or her stance on immigration for victory. State Treasurer Doug Ducey, businesswoman Christine Jones, and Mesa Mayor Scott Smith — the top-tier GOP candidates — each told RCP that immigration has taken over the election since the border crisis began earlier this summer. They added that it’s almost always the first issue brought up by voters at campaign events. Like Udall and Gardner in Colorado, the three have multi-layered views on how to handle immigration. In short, all emphasize (to varying degrees) increased border security, though Smith backs a pathway to citizenship. For a closer look at each candidate’s positions, read this.

The race may eventually have national implications, as the Grand Canyon State’s governor will likely become one of the most recognizable leaders on immigration in the country. Voters will soon decide if it’s to be a hardline or moderate voice.

Colorado’s 6th Congressional District

It’s unlikely that Democrats will regain control of the House this year, but there are several competitive races that could shrink the GOP majority — or add to it. One of those close contests is taking place in Colorado’s 6th District, where 20 percent of residents identify as Hispanic.

Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, who takes Spanish lessons in his free time, has moderated his immigration positions since redistricting left him more vulnerable. His opponent — former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff — has called out Coffman for backing off his previous hardline positions. But Romanoff, who supports federal reform, may have some trouble of his own on the issue, as he helped broker state legislation in 2006 that denied some public services to undocumented immigrants.

With plenty of material for both campaigns, immigration will stay on voters’ minds in this bellwether race.

New Mexico Governor 

Political analysts don’t expect New Mexico’s gubernatorial race to be particularly close. RCP rates it as “leans GOP,” and a recent poll showed incumbent Gov. Susana Martinez leading her opponent by nine percentage points. Although she’s a Republican — and is often discussed as a possible GOP vice presidential pick — Martinez will probably win big in a blue state that’s 40 percent Hispanic.

Yet, immigration remains an issue in this contest. Martinez supports comprehensive immigration reform, as does her opponent, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King. But she has localized the topic by taking issue with the state’s policy of granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, and King’s support of that practice. Martinez has also attacked King for “failing to lead on border security.”

Immigration won’t decide this race. But if Martinez wins big among Hispanics and independents, expect national Republicans to take note. Her margin of victory, and the positions she stresses during the campaign, could end up shaping how major GOP candidates handle the issue in the future. 

Texas’ 23rd Congressional District

Freshman Rep. Pete Gallego, a Democrat, knew when he was elected that holding onto his job wouldn’t be easy. His district — which include about 800 miles of border with Mexico — preferred Romney over Obama in 2012 (and leans slightly Republican). Incumbency isn’t a guarantee of victory either: Texas’ 23rd has gone from Democratic to Republican to Democratic in the last two elections.

One way that Gallego might stave off challenger Will Hurd, a former CIA agent, is by tying the political newcomer to the Texas GOP’s immigration plank, which was hardened earlier this year.

Hurd’s only mention of immigration in the “Issues” section of his campaign website indicates that he will make “border security, countering drug traffickers and fighting cyber criminals a national intelligence priority.” But the Texas GOP goes much further: Its plank opposes in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants and bans so-called sanctuary cities (which do not enforce many federal immigration laws). The new plank also removed a call for a national guest-worker program present in an earlier version.

As the race continues, Gallego will likely paint Hurd as an extremist aligned with state Republican leaders. In a majority-Hispanic district, that may be what the incumbent, who favors comprehensive immigration reform, needs to keep his seat.


Like it or not, the 2016 presidential election has unofficially begun. No candidates have announced, but plenty of likely contenders have made their inclinations clear. And those running will study immigration closely: Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss (and his poor showing among Hispanics) can be at least partly attributed to his awkward handling of the issue.

Republican presidential candidates often have difficulty discussing immigration, as they balance the interests of a more conservative primary electorate with broader American attitudes about the topic. GOP primary voters generally focus on securing the border, and many oppose amnesty or a pathway to citizenship. The general election electorate decidedly favors less harsh rhetoric.

Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul both support a pathway to citizenship, though each has distanced himself from the Senate’s immigration bill (which Rubio played a major role in crafting). Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered National Guard troops to the Texas border after he caught flak for his immigration policies during the 2012 Republican primary. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — whose moderate credentials have long concerned some in the GOP — has taken an ambiguous position on a pathway to citizenship.

Even likely Democratic candidates have made moves over these issues. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in on the border crisis, saying that Central American children arriving at the border should be sent home immediately. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has been considering challenging Clinton from the left, argued the opposite.

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