CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Rep. Mike Coffman (R) spends most of his days campaigning furiously across his suburban Denver district, which both Democrats and Republicans view as one of the most competitive House races in the country. But on Saturday nights, from 7 to 9 p.m., the retired Marine and former Secretary of State first elected to Congress in 2008 takes a break from campaigning to learn Spanish. His goal is to be fluent, or nearly fluent, by the time he sits down with his opponent, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D), for a debate on Univision on Oct. 30.
Coffman is one of the handful of Republicans in the House of Representatives who supports comprehensive immigration reform, campaigning in one of the few areas this cycle where a conservative congressional candidate might expect to encounter grassroots pro-reform pressure. He has spent a considerable amount of time in Hispanic marketplaces and bodegas in his district, where the Latino community has grown dramatically as housing prices in nearby Denver increase.
Political observers in Washington constantly call immigration reform essential to the future of the Republican Party, especially in districts like Coffman’s and in states like Colorado, where Hispanics make up about 21 percent of the population.
But the reality on the ground has played out differently in this midterm cycle, even in a district where the issue might be expected to resonate: Both Coffman and Romanoff say their constituents, even in the Hispanic community, are much more likely to raise concerns about the economy or the cost of living than about immigration reform.
Instead, the hot-button issue Congress has debated for the last 18 months is increasingly becoming a hot potato. The crisis on the Southern border has heightened awareness of immigration issues and sparked heated passions on both sides — passions that present dangers to anyone who takes a concrete position.
“I think it’s problematic for both sides,” Coffman said of the immigration reform debate while he worked as a guest cashier at a local 7-Eleven. “I think on the left, there’s a problem with Harry Reid saying it’s all or nothing and that he’s not going to allow a step-by-step approach. On the House side, I think there’s some colleagues of mine that don’t want to do anything outside of border security. To me, there’s got to be a path down the middle.”
In an interview, Romanoff said the only time he hears about immigration reform is when voters complain that Congress isn’t doing its job. “Immigration reform, or its absence, comes up a lot as an example of inaction,” he said. “Congress is just completely disconnected with the rest of us.”
Neither candidate is likely to make immigration reform a centerpiece of their paid advertising strategy, for fear of ginning up their opponent’s base. But calling a Democrat soft on border control remains a potent attack for Republicans, and highlighting Republican inaction and opposition to measures like the DREAM Act energize Hispanic and Democratic voters, according to pollsters and strategists on both sides of the debate.
“Republican opposition energizes the Democratic and Latino vote base. The belief that Democrats won’t secure the borders helps persuade white independents, especially men, to vote Republican,” said one Democratic Party operative, who asked for anonymity to assess the issue objectively. “For a while, people only believed [immigration reform] helped Democrats, but that was never the case.”
Only a small handful of campaigns anywhere in the country, most notably that of former Sen. Scott Brown (R) in New Hampshire, are using immigration as an avenue of attack. Party strategists on both sides say the crisis at the border has heightened tensions within the electorate and introduced an element of uncertainty they would just as soon avoid. Both Democrats and Republicans express relief that President Obama decided to delay executive action on immigration until after the midterm elections.
“Immigration had the likelihood of popping in the President had taken executive action on the issue,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster. “Executive action would have been dismissed out of hand as anything from a cynical political ploy to an unconstitutional power grab.”
Public polls bear those sentiments out. The number of Americans who said immigration was the most important problem facing the country today has jumped from 3 percent in May, when the scope of the border crisis was only beginning to emerge, to 15 percent in August, when news from the border dominated front pages across the country, according to Gallup polls.
The public wants action eventually, though what action would win the most support is unclear. In a Washington Post/ABC News survey released this week, 52 percent of adults said President Obama should take executive action on immigration if Congress fails to act. But the public is split on whether to allow undocumented immigrants to live and work legally in the U.S.: 46 percent favored the right, while 50 percent said they should not be allowed to stay, the Post poll showed. And just 31 percent of Americans approve of President Obama’s handling of immigration reform, the lowest level of support ever measured during his presidency.
“The border crisis has resonated more with Republicans than with others, and border security became a bigger priority,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center. Still, he said: “It is not the dominant issue” at the forefront of the electorate’s mind.
Even among Hispanics, other issues are more likely to take precedence. “I don’t think that immigration is the only issue that is important to the Latino community,” said Christine Alonzo, executive director of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization, which is helping register Hispanic voters in and around Aurora. “The economy and jobs and affordable housing are very important.”
Still, Coffman, who once pledged to continue the fight of his predecessor, hardliner former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R), against what he called “amnesty,” has softened his stance. Last year, he introduced a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants to serve in the military, and to gain lawful status for their service.
While such a position would be dangerous in a national Republican primary, in which the base favors an enforcement-only approach, Coffman has not taken heat from his GOP constituents in the Denver suburbs.
“There is a growing number of Republicans who recognize the need for immigration reform to make the system work,” said Frank McNulty, a Republican state legislator who represents part of Coffman’s district. “As that group grows, the issue becomes more mainstream in the Republican Party.”