One year after the 2012 elections, in which the Latino vote played a pivotal role in the re-election of President Obama, the Republican Party is still attempting to figure out how to attract Latinos and new immigrant voters to the fold. Tomorrow, voters head to the polls to decide several state elections and the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, and it looks like how a politician talks about immigration will continue to be a litmus test for Latino and Asian voters—many of whom see immigration as a personal issue. Consequently, the contrast between the Virginia and New Jersey races couldn’t be more telling.
In the Virginia gubernatorial race, ads have attacked Republican Ken Cuccinelli for comparing rats and immigrant families in 2012 when talking about a pest-control policy in the District of Columbia. Cuccinelli—who opposed President George W. Bush’s push for immigration reform in 2007—also attempted to change his perception as an anti-immigrant candidate, but immigrant advocates say they aren’t convinced because of his history. According to the Washington Post, Cuccinelli sponsored a bill when he was a state senator that would have stripped the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants of their right to citizenship, and as the state’s current attorney general, he embraced policies that allow police to check the immigration status of people they stop or arrest.
And Cuccinelli has done little outreach to Latino voters at the same time they are becoming a force in the state. “The demographics of Virginia have changed quite significantly, and we are seeing much more political engagement and organizing by Latinos and Asian-American groups in state politics now,” Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University, told the Washington Post. “Very bluntly, groups that attracted little attention 15 years ago are now an important driving force in elections in the state.” And while Cuccinelli has not attracted Latino voters, his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, has worked to gain the community’s support. Ahead of tomorrow’s vote, McAuliffe is leading Cuccinelli by double digits according to several polls.
Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Christie (R) is coasting to re-election tomorrow in New Jersey. He has a 30-point lead over Democrat Barbara Buono in some polls, and he is even or barely ahead of Buono among Latino voters. “The governor has built inroads into the Latino community for the past 11 years going back to his days as a U.S. attorney,” Michael Duhaime, a top Christie advisor, told the Daily Beast. On top of his campaign’s outreach to Latino voters, Christie has long supported immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, saying on ABC’s This Week in 2010 that “The president and the Congress have to step up to the plate, they have to secure our borders, and they have to put forward a commonsense path to citizenship for people.” And he recently reversed himself and came out in support of allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at New Jersey public colleges and universities. As the New Jersey Policy Perspective explains, Christie’s reversal removes the last political obstacle in the state that blocked the New Jersey DREAM Act.
Absent a dramatic reversal at the polls, tomorrow’s elections are likely to help debunk the argument made by some restrictionists that a vote for immigration reform is a vote for the Democratic Party. Both parties stand to gain from reaching bipartisan solutions on immigration reform, and both parties stand to lose when their members adopt hateful anti-immigrant positions. That makes recent decisions by House Republicans Jeff Denham, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and David Valadao to sign on to HR 15, the modified version of the Senate bill, a welcome development. Improving our nation’s immigration system has always been a matter of when, not if, and we’re finally reaching the point where public opinion in favor of immigration reform is strong enough to shake politicians from their complacency.