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Colorado’s 2014 Senate Race – Will Immigration Play a Defining Role a la 2010?

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Big news out of Colorado yesterday.  Republican Congressman Cory Gardner will enter the Senate race to challenge Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO).  This sets up one of the few competitive 2014 Senate races where immigration could play a defining role.

With its growing Latino voter population, Colorado is an interesting lens for immigration politics during this midterm year, just as it was in 2010 when Democrat Michael Bennet was challenged by Tea Party favorite Ken Buck. The potential 2014 Senate matchup in Colorado also offers a potential glimpse at the types of 2016 contests we could witness in many states throughout the country, when Republicans will be defending 24 Senate seats in 2016 – seven in states carried by Obama – while Democrats need only to defend 10 seats.

Below, we provide some relevant background information.

  • Immigration Politics: Lessons from the 2010 Cycle in Colorado:  In 2010, a year in which Republicans won big at every level, Colorado – along with Nevada and California – provided a “Latino firewall” for Democrats and helped them save the Senate.  This was in large part due to the clear distinctions between the pro-reform Democratic candidates, who leaned into the issue during their campaigns, and the anti-reform Republican candidates, whose hard-right views alienated and mobilized Latino voters.  Based on network exit polls Latino voter turnout was up from 9% of the electorate in the 2006 midterms to 13% in 2010.  According to 2010 election eve polling of Latino voters in Colorado conducted by Latino Decisions, immigration was a major mobilizing issue: 84% of Colorado Latino voters said immigration was important with 29% saying it was “the most important” issue, 28% saying it was “one of the most important,” and 27% saying it was “somewhat important.”  Only 13% of Colorado Latinos  said immigration was “not really important” to their voting behavior that year.  Not surprisingly, then, Senator Michael Bennet, the pro-immigration reform candidate, beat Ken Buck, then a hardline opponent of immigration reform, by a whopping 81% – 19%.
  • Rep. Gardner on Immigration – Anti-Reform Actions Speak Louder than Vague Words:  With immigration reform a major issue in this Congress, where does Cory Gardner stand?  Initially, he was talking out of both sides of his mouth on immigration – depending on the audience.  But just recently, Rep. Gardner came out against House Republican leadership’s immigration principles, per a Roll Call analysis.  Meanwhile, his only significant immigration vote this Congress has been his vote to support extremist Rep. Steve King’s amendment to defund the DACA program and subject DREAMers to deportation.  This could be a huge problem for him in a statewide Colorado race against Senator Udall, a strong supporter and champion of the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in June of 2013.  For example, in Rep. Gardner’s own district, polling conducted by Magellan Strategies in October 2013 showed that 76% of likely 2014 voters, including 77% of Republican respondents, supported immigration legislation modeled after the provisions in the Senate’s immigration bill.  In the 2010 election eve polling conducted by Latino Decisions, 85% of Colorado Latino voters viewed the DREAM Act as an important priority for President Obama and Congress; 37% of Colorado Latinos said it was “extremely important;” 31% said “very important;” and 17% said “somewhat important” that Congress and President act swiftly to pass the DREAM Act.  Should Senator Udall exploit these differences, Rep. Gardner’s opposition to reform that benefits immigrants and his support of a measure that would lead to the deportation of Dreamers could doom him to Ken Buck-like Latino numbers.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

When are Republicans going to learn?  Being hostile to immigrants and an obstacle to immigration reform puts them on the wrong side of history, especially in states that are undergoing relentless demographic change.  Cory Gardner may well learn the lesson in Colorado in 2014.  The entire party is likely to re-learn it across the nation in 2016.