For a Republican Party that is deciding whether to embrace or reject immigration reform this year, the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia show how two different models of Republican engagement on immigration can lead to two wildly different outcomes.
In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) is poised to coast to re-election and may win an outright majority of New Jersey’s Latino voters, after embracing pro-immigrant policies and prioritizing Latino outreach. Gov. Christie’s potential strong performance among Latino voters would be all the more impressive given his low levels of Latino support in the 2009 gubernatorial election (when he lost by a 65%-32% margin, per 2009 exit polls).
Meanwhile, in Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R-VA) is heading towards a defeat. His anti-immigrant rhetoric and record won him few friends among Virginia’s Latino and Asian voters, with election eve polling in Virginia placing him at “Mitt Romney levels” of support among these two groups– Latino voters supported Terry McAuliffe over Ken Cuccinelli by a 66%-29% margin, while Asian voters supported McAuliffe by a 63%-34% margin. The election-eve poll of 800 extremely likely Latino and Asian-American voters in Virginia, conducted by Latino Decisions and sponsored by America’s Voice and People For the American Way (PFAW), provides an window into the new politics of immigration reform in Virginia and across the U.S. The poll also makes it clear, though, that a change in rhetoric is not enough to swing elections for the national GOP—it’s going to take a change in their record too.
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:
In New Jersey and Virginia, the national Republican Party has real-time test cases of how best to handle immigration and outreach to Latino and Asian voters. Coming at a time when the national Republican Party is deciding what path to choose on immigration reform, House Republican leaders should take note both of Chris Christie’s successes in New Jersey and Ken Cuccinelli’s abject failures in Virginia and proceed on reform accordingly.
Below are key takeaways from the New Jersey and Virginia elections. Poll results are from the Latino Decisions 2013 election-eve survey of extremely likely Latino and Asian voters in Virginia, unless otherwise noted.
- In Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli had Mitt-Romney-like numbers among Latino and Asian voters: Virginia Latino voters supported Terry McAuliffe over Ken Cuccinelli by a 66%-29% margin, while Asian voters supported McAuliffe by a 63%-34% margin. By comparison, in Latino Decisions’ 2012 Election Eve polling in Virginia, Latinos supported President Obama over Mitt Romney by a 66%-31% margin (Asian voters supported Obama over Romney by a 66%-32% margin in 2012, per network exit polls).
- Many Latino voters in Virginia have a personal connection to the immigration debate – little surprise that immigration weighed heavily in their voting decisions. The majority of Virginia’s Latino voters – 59% – reported knowing an undocumented immigrant in the Latino Decisions election eve poll. When asked about the role of immigration in their voting decisions, 53% of Latinos and 46% of Asians in Virginia said it was either “the most important issue” or “one of the most important issues” in their “decision to vote, and who to vote for.” The polling also gauged Latino and Asian voters’ enthusiasm for each candidate after hearing a description of their immigration positions – 56% of Latinos and 40% of Asians were more enthusiastic about McAuliffe after hearing his pro-reform stance, while a strong majority of Latinos and Asians were less enthusiastic about Cuccinelli after hearing a range of his anti-immigrant statements and positions.
- In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie leaned into immigration reform and Latino outreach and dramatically improved his performance among Latinos compared to 2009. Gov. Christie supports immigration reform with citizenship, reversed course and publicly endorsed the New Jersey Dream Act, and spent heavily on Spanish language TV, radio, and mail. This is a major reason why Gov. Christie went from losing Latino voters by a 65%-32% margin to Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009 per exit polls to “running even or barely ahead” in polling of Latino voters against 2013 Democratic nominee Barbara Buono. See here for more on the immigration reform record and rhetoric of Chris Christie.
- It will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win states like New Jersey or Virginia – or many other elections nationwide – without improving their share of Latino and Asian voters. NBC News noted regarding the changing demographics of Virginia, “the share of Hispanics in the state has quadrupled since 1990 and doubled since 2000 … Asians have tripled since 1990 … and nearly doubled since 2000 … In 1990, both Hispanics and Asians made up just 2.6% of the state. By 2012, Hispanics made up 8% and Asians 6%.” In New Jersey, the state saw 82% growth in its Latino eligible voter population between 2000 and 2010 – Latinos now comprise over 10% of the state’s eligible electorate. The story is much the same nationwide – there will be an estimated 3.2 million newly eligible Asian, Latino, and naturalized immigrant voters in the 2014 elections that were not eligible to vote in 2012 – constituting 34 percent of all newly eligible voters in the 2014 elections, per analysis of Census data from Rob Paral of the Immigration Policy Center.
- Republicans can put an immediate halt to their dangerous demographic slide by taking action to pass immigration reform in the House this year. Despite Christie’s potentially strong showing among Latinos, the poll shows that ugly rhetoric and policies some GOP politicians champion has a direct effect on Latino and Asian voters’ view of the entire party. If the House takes action on immigration, pluralities of Latinos (41%) and Asians (43%) would have a more favorable view of the Republican Party, but if the House does nothing, an overwhelming majority of Latino voters (69%) and a plurality of Asian voters (47%) will have a less favorable view of the Republican Party.
As Senator John McCain found out in 2008, having a good individual record on immigration cannot overcome the damage done by a tarnished Republican brand that is associated with hostility toward Latinos and opposition to immigration reform.