december coverA Prayer for President Obama

Here come los Republicanos! A record eight Hispanic Republicans were elected to Congress in November’s midterm elections, including Florida’s new Senator Marco Rubio. And there are two new Republican governors, New Mexico’s Susana Martinez and Nevada’s Brian Sandoval. But despite this, 60% of Latino voters still came out in favor of Democrats, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. And while the House went Republican, it was the Latino vote that kept the Senate in Democratic hands “Latino voters proved to be the firewall that saved the Senate for the Democrats,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group. Democrats won tight Senate races in Nevada, Colorado, California and Washington state, and Sharry attributes these key victories to the Latino vote: “In each of those races, Latino voters turned out in record numbers and voted against candidates that they thought were anti-immigrant. It’s a remarkable story. Latinos became increasingly motivated because many felt under attack by hard line Republican candidates.”

The Nevada Senate race exemplified this theory. Most pre-election polls showed incumbent Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, down against Tea Party-backed candidate Sharron Angle by an average margin of about six points. Nate Silver, pollster for the New York Times FiveThirtyEight blog, expressed in a post-election post that a reason that the polls may have been off were because they didn’t adequately account for the Latino vote, which may have saved Reid.

The national exit poll numbers for Angle showed she won an estimated 30 percent of the Latino vote, an eight percentage point increase over what John McCain won in 2008. But according to Matt Barreto, a researcher for polling firm Latino Decisions, Reid won 90 percent of the Latino vote. Angle ran a rather offensive campaign against Latinos, running a series of ads during her campaign featuring images of sullen, dark-skinned men to blast Reid’s immigration record. During a campaign stop, a befuddled Angle told a group of Latino schoolchildren they looked Asian.

Reid aggressively courted Latinos throughout his campaign and has a history of supporting pro-Latino legislation on the Senate floor. In a pre-election interview with Univision, he promised to bring the DREAM Act---which would grant citizenship to college students and members of the military---up for a vote in the lame-duck Congress session before the new Congress begins in January. However, the future of immigration reform looks grim, regardless of who controls the Senate or the House. The emergence of the right-wing Tea Party may further impede any attempts for comprehensive immigration reform, or even for more narrow legislation like the DREAM Act.

“Traditionally there’s been some Republican support for comprehensive immigration legislation,” said John Skrentny, the director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies and a professor in sociology at the University of California in San Diego. “But Senators like [McCain], who supported more comprehensive reform, have moved away from immigration reform in the face of more conservative candidates.”

According to Skrentny, there’s a split within the Republican party on how to approach immigration reform, Some Republicans think it’s important to try and gain Latino support through comprehensive reform, while others believe in enforcement policy, like Arizona’s SB 1070. But reform seems unlikely, even if Democrats had maintained control of the House.

“The DREAM Act needs a big push from President Obama, but the Obama administration seems to be leaning towards comprehensive reform,” Skrentny said. “Obama doesn’t want to take the lead on this. So they’re passing it on to Congress.”

But immigration wasn’t on the minds of all Latino voters. Francisco Canseco, a Tea Party-endorsed Republican who won a tight race in Texas’ 23rd Congressional district against incumbent Democratic Ciro Rodriguez, said the issue of immigration reform wasn’t important to his constituents. According to the 2000 Census, this district is 65 percent Latino. That number is most likely higher now.

“I think the issues that I heard from almost 100 percent, if not 101 percent of all the people I spoke to were jobs, the economy, and the protection of our border,” he said. “And if immigration ever came up, which it hardly did, it was resentment towards people who come here illegally.”

According to some, President Obama doesn’t have a prayer unless he stops taking Latinos for granted. “He has badly disappointed Latino voters,” concludes Sharry of America’s Voice. “I think he is going to have a tough time turning out Latino voters in 2012 if he doesn’t follow through.”

Maya Srikrishnan