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Will the Immigration Issue Play a Major Role in the Midterms?

The Hispanic share of the American population (over 16%) and registered voters (over 10%) is increasing rapidly. Barack Obama’s decisive win over Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters in 2012 -- by about 73% to 27%,  if the exit polls are to be believed -- was a far wider margin than Obama achieved in 2008 and  John Kerry or other Democrats won with this voting group in earlier presidential election cycles.

An attempt to reverse that trend was one reason why several Republican senators were part of the Group of 8 that attempted to draft a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and why more than a dozen Republican senators signed on to the  bill that passed the Senate in 2013 by a vote of 68 to 32. Several Republican congressman participated in a similar effort in the House, though with less success.

The Senate bill stalled in the House, where a large majority of Republicans were opposed to what they viewed as amnesty with a path to citizenship for illegals in the United States and a continuation of chained immigration policies that would lead to a mix of new immigrants favoring family unification over skilled immigrants.

There was support for immigration reform from some major Republican financial contributors, the K Street crowd, and many businesses and Chamber of Commerce types who were happy to make low-wage labor legal and more widespread.  Silicon Valley supported immigration reform, but really cared mainly about expanding the number of skilled workers they could hire.

President Obama attempted to apply pressure to House Republicans to get on board by stripping off "dreamers” as a separate group who would not be deported (in other words, for whom immigration laws would not be enforced). The dreamers are a group of illegals who were brought here as children and either served in the military or attended college.

Then came the recent flood of Central American young people crossing into Texas, and to a lesser extent California and Arizona. The supporters of immigration reform have argued that the new wave is attributable to terrible conditions in the migrants' home countries (high murder rates among them), which presumably would argue for Chicago’s South Side and West Side youngsters to be fleeing north to Canada, seeking asylum to avoid the gang murderers in their midst.

Tea Party members and their media supporters, but also many other Americans if recent polls are to be believed, have been angered by the latest wave of illegal immigrants, which they believe is in large part a result of a green light issued by the Obama administration when it announced its policy on “dreamers” and promised amnesty to illegals.  When a country no longer has effective borders, it is certainly less of a sovereign country.

The Obama administration, as was to be expected, asked for more money (about $4 billion), only a small part of which was to be applied for deportations (returning the young people to their countries of origin). Now, there are rumors that President Obama will soon issue a new executive order that will provide the right to work for millions of illegals, since immigration reform is going nowhere in the current Congress, with prospects further reduced beginning in 2015 if Republicans win control of the Senate (a slightly better than  50% prospect at this point). Several lawyers are convinced that such an action by the president would be illegal on its face, and politically, it would be certain to create a strong reaction among those already unhappy with the administration (well over 50% at this point). A recent survey asking about a re-vote of the 2012 race gave Romney a decisive 9% point victory.

The recent opinion polls on immigration suggest that even Hispanics prefer deportation of the latest wave of young illegals. This will make it easier for Republicans to take a firm line.

A comprehensive Economist/YouGo poll on various issues includes immigration results beginning on page 38. A large majority (2/3 of those who have an opinion) believes the recent wave of immigrants is a result of a perception that amnesty would be available to them if they made it to the United States (page 44) . Only 11% would prefer that the newly arrived be allowed to stay (page 45).

These are very problematic numbers for the administration, which has operated with a Katrina-style befuddlement for weeks over what to do. Obama’s approval numbers have slipped again, at least in part due to the visibility of the border problem, compounded by his mishandling of pretty much every overseas issue.

How will all this impact the midterms? In general, embattled Democratic Senate incumbents in red states (Landrieu, Hagan, Pryor, Begich) have tried to de-nationalize their campaigns, stressing local issues and their “moderate” record. Landrieu may even get an endorsement from the Chamber of Commerce for her generally pro-business record in the past. The closest Senate races remain these four, the Kentucky seat of Mitch McConnell, Colorado (Udall), and the open Iowa seat. A few others -- the open Georgia and Michigan seats -- also seem competitive, though turnover of the seats seems less likely.

The recent immigration brouhaha would seem to be another hot poker iron that Democrats will try to avoid, much as they have generally run from the Affordable Care Act, a bill every Democratic senator supported. While it is not the key issue in any of the tight Senate races, it probably is worth a point or two to Republicans in each of them, maybe more in Colorado, with its rapidly growing Hispanic population.  The states on the frontlines of the border with Mexico where Central Americans are crossing -- Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico -- are not states where any close statewide races seem likely to be defined by this issue this year, though in a few tight House races in Arizona and California, Democratic incumbents may get hit a bit (5 of the 17 tossup House races according to RealClearPolitics.com are Democrat-held seats in the two states).

Democrats, to some extent, are trying to hold on in the Senate, and not lose much in the House, while facing a near perfect-storm environment. Their president is regarded as having either checked out or chosen to ignore the lawn on issues he still cares about; Obamacare is under new assault in the courts and remains at about a 40% support level nationwide; the immigration debate has shifted against the party due to the latest border crossings and the president’s visible indecision about addressing the issue; and foreign policy failures are everywhere.

Administration officials seem to think that announcing a new work program for millions of illegals in the fall right before the election will galvanize a large Hispanic turnout and shift the political landscape.  The “dreamers” push in 2012 helped the Obama re-election effort, but the jury is out on whether something more massive, which will get significant blowback from those arguing the step is either illegal or bypasses Congress’s role in legislating, will be a net positive for Democrats.

In wave election years -- 1994  and 2010 for the Republicans; 2006 and 2008 for the Democrats -- the party riding the wave won almost all the close House and Senate contests, including a few surprise victories. If Republicans have such a year in 2014, part of the tide will be due to concerns about border security. But it will just reinforce a growing sense that the country is lacking a leader.

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)