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Benjy Sarlin: Immigration Reformers Make Their Stand in Colorado

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MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin today covers two of this fall’s most important races — Rep. Cory Gardner’s (R-CO) bid to unseat Sen. Mark Udall, and Rep. Mike Coffman’s (R-CO) battle to hold his seat against Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff.  Colorado’s electorate is 13% Latino, and as we’ve written about many times, both of these Republicans have talked the talk about supporting the kind of immigration reform legislation that is so important to Colorado voters — but they’ve walked none of the walk.  That’s why advocates in Colorado are working nonstop on the campaigns against Gardner and Coffman; read Sarlin’s full piece here or an excerpt below:

DENVER – With immigration reform officially dead in the House, activists are itching to punish the GOP for their hard swerve to the right. The problem has been finding the right place to do it in a midterm election fought overwhelmingly in conservative-leaning states and Congressional districts with relatively few Latino and Asian voters.

Enter, Colorado, which may be reformers’ last chance to prove they can make the GOP pay a price for their intransigence before the next presidential election. There, activists are organizing to defeat three-term Republican Rep. Mike Coffman in his re-election bid and, more importantly, working to thwart GOP Rep. Cory Gardner in his campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.

The race between Udall and Gardner is among the most competitive in the country and could be a bellwether for control of the Senate. A July NBC News/Marist poll gave Udall a 48-41 lead over Gardner while more recent surveys have put the race closer.

“The stakes are very high,” Patty Kupfer, the Denver-based managing director of pro-reform advocacy group America’s Voice, told msnbc. “This is the place Republicans will either get the message or not get the message. This is the litmus test for whether they can get away with it.”

Last week, Kupfer joined leaders from the Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition Action Fund and Mi Familia Vota to announce a new “accountability project” with the goal of talking to 45,000 voters in immigrant communities about reform as part of a registration and turnout drive. The SEIU, whose offices hosted the event, has already run Spanish language ads targeting Gardner and Hoffman, as has the pro-reform Alliance For Citizenship.

“I will do everything in my power, my community will do anything in our power, to make sure [Gardner] is not elected,” Sonia Marquez, northern director for CIRC, told msnbc.

This wasn’t the role immigration groups hoped to play at the outset of the election cycle. In fact, activists originally saw Gardner and Coffman as promising candidates to help put reform over the top in the House.

Marquez personally spent more than a year trying to win Gardner’s support for immigration reform. Under her guidance, activists met with him personally, held rallies across his district, and organized roundtable discussions with supportive local businesses, all with the goal of making Gardner comfortable with legislation granting legal status to undocumented immigrants. Gardner offered them encouraging words throughout and his staff was friendly and accessible, but he never quite took the leap, always telling constituents that while he wanted the GOP to address immigration he opposed the Senate’s bipartisan plan. Instead, Gardner said he favored passing smaller bills to address border security, increase interior enforcement, and establish a new guest worker program first before he’d consider legalization.

“We have to have a potential legal solution [for the undocumented], that’s obviously going to be part of this answer,” Gardner told msnbc. “But I don’t know when the timing of that will be.”

Finally, Marquez gave Gardner an ultimatum: Either release your own plan for the undocumented or face the consequences. The deadline passed and Marquez and her fellow activists occupied Gardner’s office with a mariachi band to mark the point of no return.

“I told them this was not the route I wanted to take,” Marquez said. “I’d rather be able to sit at a table and try to figure this out.”

Gardner said he was disappointed with how things turned out as well. Despite reports to the contrary, he told msnbc he had tried to sell his colleagues on the House GOP’s ill-fated immigration principlesand shared activists’ goals of passing significant legislation.

“It’s a shame, I thought we were working very well together,” he said of his relationship with pro-reform groups. “I would like to see them work with people opposed to immigration reform instead of trying to play politics with people who support immigration reform.”

This gets at a challenge for immigration advocates. It’s easy to rally their base against cartoonishly nativist Republicans like Iowa Congressman Steve King or Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks, but to win where it matters they have to demonstrate that members who claim to be reformers themselves are what’s holding legislation back…

“I think the calculation they’re making is that literally all they have to do is change their rhetoric and as long as they’re not Tom Tancredo and they’re not demonizing immigrants, no one is going to be playing close enough attention as to whether they’re actually acting,” Kupfer said. “Our job is to make sure people know what they’re saying and what they’re doing do not add up.”

Read Benjy Sarlin’s full piece here.