As polls show voters defecting in droves from Democrats, one bastion of support you’d think the party could count on is Hispanics. They turned out in force in 2006 and 2008 to punish Republicans for their shrill rhetoric on illegal immigration, reversing the party’s historic gains among Latinos under George W. Bush. Now the GOP is at it again. Earlier this year Republican Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law one of the most draconian immigration measures in the land. Many of the party’s candidates around the country have embraced it and are scrambling to outdo their opponents in anti-illegal-alien bluster. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, long a moderate Republican voice on the issue, has moved to the right, floating the idea of repealing birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants.
But if Democrats are hoping that Latinos will once again turn out heavily to spank the GOP, they may well be disappointed. Polls show Hispanics have become steadily more disenchanted with President Obama and congressional Democrats. They’ve suffered disproportionately from the economic downturn, with an unemployment rate of about 13 percent—3 points higher than that of the general population. And they’re disillusioned with Democrats’ failure to pass immigration reform, despite Obama’s campaign promise to tackle it in his first year. Recent surveys by polling firm Latino Decisions show that, although Hispanics back Democrats by more than 2 to 1, their enthusiasm for turning out to vote has been waning. “As a result, the Latino vote will likely be underwhelming” in November, says the firm’s Matt Barreto.
In 2006, the last midterm cycle, Democrats had to do barely anything. Not only were Republicans bashing immigrants, but they were the party in power. “That makes it much easier to concentrate the blame,” says Barreto. Plus, he points out, political-advocacy groups were more aggressive four years ago about channeling Latino anger into drives for citizenship, voter registration, and turnout. But now Democrats are in charge. And instead of slamming GOP fearmongering and running on an unabashedly pro-immigrant message, they’re slinking away from the issue. Members of the Obama administration are concerned they’re not getting credit for suing Arizona, says Barreto, based on his conversations with some of them. But “they aren’t trumpeting” the move. (A White House spokesman counters that the administration has engaged the community vigorously on policy matters and more.)
Not that the GOP should feel heartened. Its brand continues to deteriorate among Latinos because of the party’s inability to put a lid on its most strident immigration critics. Still, some Hispanic Republicans see hopeful signs in Senate candidates like Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American running in Florida, and Carly Fiorina, the party’s nominee in California, who has taken more moderate stances on immigration and is reaching out to Latinos. “Republicans have a chance if they get their message right,” says Alfonso Aguilar of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, an advocacy group that plans to spend $1 million to win Latino votes for Fiorina. “We want to use California as a showcase at the national level.” The GOP faces a tough task—yet one that Democrats, in their inaction, are making a bit easier.