After a midterm election in which declining Hispanic turnout cost Democrats dearly in close races, causing some leaders to question whether President Barack Obama made a mistake in delaying his immigration order, the party is devising far-reaching plans to reverse the slide in 2016.
The efforts, according to party operatives, include a multimillion-dollar fundraising drive to boost Democrats in congressional districts with large Hispanic populations. With the incoming Republican-controlled Congress unlikely to support a comprehensive immigration package, Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill are forming a new “Immigration Strike Team” to go on a messaging offensive on the issue.
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And last month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made a surprise choice to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a little-known third-term lawmaker who promises to make Hispanic voter engagement a top priority of the campaign arm.
The moves follow an election that saw Hispanics — the nation’s fastest growing voting bloc, and a group that helped power Obama’s reelection — stay home. According to exit polling, Hispanics made up just 8 percent of the 2014 electorate, down from 10 percent in 2012. And of those who did vote, fewer of them supported the president’s party. Hispanics broke for Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 28 percent, down from 44 percent in 2012.
“You had the perfect storm: a lack of enthusiasm, a lack of movement on immigration reform and a lack of capital investment to turn people out,” said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who specializes in Hispanic voter targeting. “I think everyone is reevaluating what went wrong to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Much of the internal Democratic finger-pointing surrounded the question of whether Obama should have signed his executive action on immigration before the midterms rather than after with an eye toward activating Hispanics for the midterms. While House Democrats ensconced in safe blue districts supported a pre-election move, their Senate colleagues, many of whom were locked in tough contests in red states, pressed him not to. Obama’s popularity among Hispanics has been on the rise since the executive action: A Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Telemundo survey released last week showed 57 percent of Hispanics approving of the president, up from 47 percent in September, just prior to the midterms.
“It was really bad timing for some senators who approached the president and asked him to put off taking executive action on immigration,” said California Rep. Tony Cárdenas, the incoming chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s political action committee. “Talking to Latinos, a lot of them were very bothered, a lot of them were very perplexed and confused.”
Now Cárdenas is gearing up to play a central role in the Democratic comeback with Hispanics. The Los Angeles-area lawmaker recently sent his Democratic colleagues a memo announcing his intention to raise $2 million, double the amount the caucus spent on behalf of candidates in 2014. Cárdenas also said he wants to elect two or three additional Hispanic Democrats to the House in 2016, and over the next decade to double their number to 50.
While Democrats are still sorting through district-by-district data, they believe Hispanic turnout was on a par with previous midterm elections, when the voting pool is typically whiter and less diverse than presidential ones. During a post-election conference call with other House Democrats, just-defeated Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford, who occupies a liberal-friendly district where Hispanics make up nearly 30 percent of the electorate, blamed his loss squarely on lack of turnout in the Las Vegas area, the most Hispanic-heavy part of his district.
Democrats, confident that the 2016 presidential contest will bring a more diverse electorate to the polls, are drawing up plans to target Hispanic-oriented districts like Horsford’s by painting Republicans as out of touch on issues like immigration. In the next Congress, 75 Republicans will occupy districts where Hispanics make up 10 percent or more of the electorate, up from 68 currently.
“I think Republicans have a problem right now with immigration reform,” Luján, the newly minted DCCC chair, said in an interview. “Republicans are going further and further to the right instead of trying to find a way to work in the middle to get this done. That’s going to hurt GOP chances in the debates, in the presidential campaign, as well as in these House elections.”
Following Obama’s Nov. 20 executive action to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, the Service Employees International Union recently began running Spanish-language TV ads targeting six Republican senators who are up for reelection in 2016. “In the battle for immigration reform, President Obama took a bold step forward to keep our families together,” the commercials say. “But Republican politicians respond with more opposition and keep insulting our families. Enough.”
Some Republicans are warning their party about the potential peril and urging it to embrace a moderate approach on immigration reform. In Florida, Republican Carlos Curbelo, who in November ousted a Democratic incumbent in a congressional district where Hispanics make up nearly 70 percent of the electorate, has said he supports a comprehensive package that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and their children.
“I don’t want the Republicans to look like the party that refuses to address the nation’s challenges,” Curbelo said in an interview, adding that he hoped the GOP-controlled House would take up an immigration bill next year.
Democrats are laying the groundwork to highlight any GOP recalcitrance on the issue. The Immigration Strike Team, which will include White House officials, congressional leaders and CHC members, is designed to develop a coordinated response to the GOP, something Democrats say they lacked in the run-up to the midterms. The group, which is working together in Washington, D.C., has already begun organizing conference calls, according to an aide to one lawmaker who is involved.
At party headquarters on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Luján, the 42-year-old scion of a prominent New Mexico political family, said he’d begun a detailed internal review to understand why Democrats fell short with Hispanics in 2014.
“I think the Latino vote is going to be critically important in 2016,” Luján, 42, said in an interview. “I think turnout was one of the things I was most concerned about and that was one of the challenges we had this cycle … We still need to understand all of those dynamics, down to the precinct level.”
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The immigration strike team
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