Inside Democrats’ Election-Year Immigration Push — ‘Either Way We Win’

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The new push to take up immigration in the Senate has more to do with voters in Nevada, California and Colorado — and a new law in Arizona that’s sparked uproar — than it does with what’s politically possible in Washington. The legislative battle — no matter how unlikely to reach a conclusion in 2010 — will give critical face time and an electoral boost to vulnerable Democratic incumbents from Western states that have long asked for Congressional leadership on how to handle the millions of illegal immigrants coming across the border.

Making a genuine attempt at a comprehensive immigration plan that includes a pathway to citizenship has dual potential to help Democrats politically — they motivate Latino voters and labor unions who have long championed the issue, and they can portray unwilling Republicans as anti-Hispanic. Demographic shifts in the West have helped Democrats scoop up more Congressional seats and win electoral college battles in recent years.

With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid among those on the ropes in this fall’s midterm elections, fighting for an issue that voters and political activists in Nevada are passionate about can’t hurt. The same goes for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO).“Reid obviously needs it to invigorate his base – Clark County Hispanics and union members. He needs to get those people invigorated and out voting and one way to do that is to get an immigration bill moving,” a Democratic House committee staffer familiar with the immigration debate told me in an interview. The staffer asked for anonymity to be able to speak freely about the political nature of the issue.

“Either we do it for political show or we get a bill done. Either way we win,” the staffer said. “If Republicans block us they will forever cement themselves as rural, white angry party, and that’s fine either way. Hispanics will see on Telemundo and Univision the angry white people in the Republican blocking the American dream. Who wins? Democrats do.”

Simon Rosenberg of progressive think tank NDN agreed it will be hard for Republicans to block an immigration bill since so many of them supported a comprehensive plan in 2006 in a GOP Senate and under a Republican president.

Rosenberg said Democrats would rather get something done this year and blamed in part the long health care debate that postponed something that topped their agenda. He thinks they are well positioned politically because they will either find legislative agreement and achieve something that’s been talked about for years, or mount “a spirited advocacy effort to get Republicans to step up and play ball, knowing there is a chance they will walk.” Either way, Latino voters will see that Democrats delivered on a promise to try, he said.

With immigration back on the table the GOP could face a repeat of 2006 and 2007, when the party was bitterly divided on what anti-immigrant protesters said was “amnesty.” Republicans suffered badly in fundraising from that wing of the party, Sen. John McCain was labeled a RINO for working with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Congressional switchboards melted as angry voters said immigrants were on the brink of getting rights they didn’t deserve. The backlash led to the GOP walking away from a deal which President George W. Bush had been attempting to craft for several years. Even though Bush did well among Hispanic voters for his reelection in 2004, the voting block overwhelmingly backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008.

NDN today is releasing a report called “Hispanics Rising” that shows staggering growth in the Hispanic electorate, noting that Latinos are critical swing voters in presidential elections.

Rosenberg thinks immigration rights activists are right to be excited since the new Arizona immigration law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer is an impetus for action. “We crossed an important line and there is a universal understanding now there needs to be conclusive federal action soon,” Rosenberg said.

My House source said politics aside, Republicans also can benefit from passing immigration. The aide suggested that conservative Democrats and Republicans could oppose the bill, moderates from both parties could back it and “everyone wins.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), once a major player in the immigration debate, told reporters last night that “everybody knows immigration has no chance.”

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said President Obama is committed to finding bipartisan support for immigration reform. He said that’s why Obama has worked with Graham and Sen. Chuck Schumer, who took up the Kennedy mantle on the subcommittee tasked with immigration.

Shapiro said Obama has phoned Republican Sens. Scott Brown (MA), Dick Lugar (IN), George LeMieux (FL), Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Judd Gregg on the topic in the last week. He said that Obama believes the Arizona law was a turning point and said, “if we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country.”

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