McCain's Rise May Upset Democrats' Western Strategy

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

For Democrats, 2008 was supposed to be the year of the Mountain West, when three years of relentless Republican attacks on undocumented immigrants would fuel a backlash among Hispanics that would change the playing field in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, and perhaps alter the landscape of presidential politics for a generation.

But the emergence of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as the likely standard-bearer for the GOP may have scrambled the equation, cooling a potential political revolt among Hispanics and sending Democrats in search of a new playbook.

"It completely screws it up," said Charles Black, a senior McCain adviser. "We nominated the one person who will not suffer that backlash."

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), whose Tucson district is heavily Hispanic, said Democrats should change their tack toward Latinos and emphasize the economy, education and health care before even raising the immigration issue. Perhaps Democrats seeking the Latino vote would be best served challenging McCain on the Iraq war, suggested Guillermo Nicacio, Arizona state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, an effort to encourage Latinos to apply for citizenship, register and vote.

Even as McCain moves to heal intraparty wounds on the immigration issue, Democratic community organizers in the West say his past battles with other Republicans over a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants left an imprint on the Latino community that will not quickly fade.

"The issue of immigration is a litmus test in the Latino community," said Grace Lopez Ramirez, director of the Mi Familia Vota campaign in Colorado. "They will at least be more interested in listening to him."

In consecutive presidential elections, the Democrats have fallen just short of the electoral college votes needed to take the White House. Ohio or Florida could have put them over the top, but this year, Democrats are looking west for those gains. The Democratic National Committee chose Denver as the site of its August nominating convention, and the party moved the Nevada caucuses to the front of the election calendar.

The Hispanic electorate has nearly doubled since President Bush's first election, from 7.5 million in 2000 to an estimated 14 million this year, according to NDN, formerly known as the New Democrat Network, a liberal think tank focused on Latino voters. Hispanics make up 31 percent of the electorate in New Mexico, 13 percent in Nevada, 12 percent in Arizona and 8 percent in Colorado.

Between 1996 and 2004, Republicans were able to cut into that Hispanic vote, moving from a 21 percent share to a 40 percent share. But in 2005, the GOP-controlled House approved legislation tightening border controls and cracking down on illegal immigrants, declaring them felons. The GOP's share of the Hispanic vote slipped from 40 percent in 2004 to 30 percent in 2006.

In primary voting so far this year, the trend has continued, according to an NDN analysis released last week. Latino turnout has surged to nearly 2 million, and 25 percent of the Latino vote has gone to Republicans; 75 percent has gone to Democrats.

Given the makeup of the Latino population, the response now seems inevitable. Waves of immigration in recent years have enlarged the Hispanic population to 44.3 million, 15 percent of the country. Two-thirds of the population is of Mexican descent, with the second largest segment, Puerto Rican, far behind at 9 percent.

Of the 29 million Latino adults, about 13 million are registered to vote, and close to half of those are foreign-born U.S. citizens.

That "is a dramatic and scary development for the Republicans," NDN President Simon Rosenberg said.

"Ya es Hora, Ve y Vota!," a national campaign sponsored by labor unions, Latino groups and Spanish-language media outlets, is helping tens of thousands of Latinos to apply for citizenship and register to vote.

The group's organizers cannot advocate a particular candidate, but their expectations are clear: "The issue of immigration has put the West in play," said Ben Monterroso, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizer responsible for Arizona, Colorado and Nevada. "A lot of people are waiting to vote for someone who will not play politics with this issue but will offer real solutions."

McCain, whose name sits beside that of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's on comprehensive immigration reform legislation, has consistently won a majority of Latinos in his home state. And he countered the more heated rhetoric of his competitors for the GOP nomination with a declaration that illegal immigrants are all "children of God."

"They'd better look past the mountains and to the Pacific," chuckled Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "I think John McCain is the Democrats' worst nightmare come true."

"He's definitely showed us that he's persistent," Lopez Ramirez acknowledged. "This is dear to his heart, and he believes in it. Why else would he be taking so many hits from his own party?"

Many Democrats are not so sure. Last year, when McCain was taking a pounding from his party's right wing on immigration, he virtually disappeared as Senate Democrats and Republicans tried to hash out a compromise immigration bill, said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), citing a Spanish saying, "Between that which you say and that which you do, there is a big gulf."

What McCain is saying has changed. Whereas once he firmly said that no immigration legislation could work unless it twinned tougher border enforcement with a guest-worker program and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, he now maintains that sealing the border must come first.

In a closed-door meeting with House Republicans last week, he again assured conservatives that he had gotten the message. He had been beaten up badly on the immigration issue, participants said he told them, and understands that the nation's borders must be sealed and independently certified as under control before the next president even considers any further steps.

Some Latino Democrats said that is almost worse than the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the Republican Party.

"When they went to him and said he had to back a [no same-sex] marriage amendment, he said no. When they said campaign finance reform, he said no. When they said torture, he said no," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who worked with McCain on immigration legislation. "On this one, he didn't wait. He said yes. Everybody gets this."

Regardless of McCain's rhetoric, the actions of Republicans down the ticket could still mobilize Latinos. "The Republicans have done a hell of a job organizing Latinos away from the Republican Party," said Eliseo Medina, an SEIU organizer in Texas. "There's a Spanish saying, 'Tell me who you're with, and I'll tell you who you are.' McCain is hanging out with these guys."

"We're running against the Republican Party," Grijalva said, "and, like it or not, the good senator will be the titular head of that ticket."

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