The Split-Level Politics of Immigration

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Want a preview of coming attractions in next year's elections? Listen to a television ad from Bob Latta, who is trying to hold on to a traditionally Republican congressional district in Ohio's special election today.

"Broken borders, and Washington does nothing," the announcer intones. "Had enough? Bob Latta wants to get tough." Latta's "plan" includes "no amnesty for illegal immigrants," cutting off "taxpayer-subsidized welfare benefits" and, of course, "no driver's license."

Latta is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Robin Weirauch, who is running on trade and health care. But he is apparently not worried that the Republican Party's increasingly punitive approach to immigration is costing the GOP Hispanic votes. That may be because people of Hispanic origin account for only 3.8 percent of the population of Ohio's 5th District.

This contest points to an important but little-noticed disconnect between how immigration is likely to play in the 2008 congressional elections and how it will affect the presidential campaign. A Latino backlash against the Republicans could hurt their nominee for president, even as a backlash against illegal immigration could help some Republicans running for Congress.

In the presidential election, Latino votes could well tip Western states that voted for President Bush in 2004 to the Democrats, who are enjoying a Latino surge. A study released last week by the Pew Hispanic Center found that in 2007, 57 percent of registered voters who are Hispanic identified themselves as Democrats, compared with 23 percent who are Republicans -- a 34-point advantage. A year ago, the Democratic Latino advantage was just 21 points. Immigration has a lot to do with this. Hispanics gave Democrats a 41 percent to 14 percent edge on dealing with illegal immigration.

This shift will matter in New Mexico, where people of Hispanic origin account for 42.6 percent of the state's population, and also in Arizona, (25.3 percent Hispanic); Nevada (19.7 percent) and Colorado (17.1 percent).

Yet the Hispanic population is quite small in the limited number of highly competitive districts that will determine control of the House.

Based on the results of the 2006 election, I counted 34 Democratic districts that Republicans will probably target next year. In only four of those districts is the Hispanic population more than 18 percent. In 19 of them, it is under 3 percent. These are the races in which Republicans are likely to use the illegal immigration issue as Latta has. Of the 15 districts where the Democratic incumbent received 51 percent or less last year, 11 have Hispanic populations below than 10 percent. (All Hispanic population figures are from the just-published Almanac of American Politics 2008.)

Typical of Democrats trying to hold on to seats won in 2006 is Rep. Heath Shuler, who defeated GOP incumbent Charles Taylor in a western North Carolina district where Hispanics account for just 2.6 percent of the population.

It is no accident that the featured item on Shuler's congressional Web site is his sponsorship of the Secure America through Verification and Enforcement Act, a proposal that Shuler says would "drastically reduce illegal immigration" through "a strict emphasis on border security, employer verification, and interior enforcement." No one will accuse Shuler of being "soft" on immigration.

In the end, we won't solve the immigration problem until we offer a path to citizenship to the 12 million or so immigrants who are in the country illegally. A compassionate approach is also the most practical approach. But in the short run, especially in the House, the politics of the issue will be very bumpy. Politics, for better or worse, is often about the numbers.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company