President Trump’s harsh closing message on immigration and border security, capped off with a threat to attempt to end birthright citizenship by fiat, could help Democrats with one of their biggest concerns of the campaign cycle: turning out Hispanic voters.
Democrats have been worried for months that a failure to boost Hispanic turnout could cost them in key House and Senate races. While some early voting analysis and recent polling suggests there’s been an uptick in interest in recent weeks, they remain concerned that not enough Latino voters will cast ballots to win some key battleground campaigns.
But Trump has decided to close hard in the midterms with a message drilling hard on immigrant fear-mongering. After weeks of stoking alarm about a caravan of refugees working its way up through Central America and sending troops to the border, the president opened a new front on Tuesday by declaring he was considering an executive order to end birthright citizenship — a move of dubious constitutionality that has been pushed for by some anti-immigrant hardliners for years.
Trump’s closing focus on immigration could help the GOP in a number of key Senate races in red states where Republicans have been hammering on similar messages against their Democratic opponents. But in a few key spots across the Sun Belt it could prove a double-edged sword, giving Democrats one more argument as they try to push Latino voters to the polls.
“As much as he wants to promote and engage his base, it’s also angering our community and giving us another reason why we can’t sit home,” Ben Monterroso, the head of the Hispanic voting group Mi Familia Vota, told TPM. “We’re hoping the community sees this is another attack and the anger and discontent we can feel in our community can be manifested at the ballot box.”
That could make a big difference in a trio of Senate races crucial to Democrats’ Senate hopes. Nevada, Arizona and Florida are all close contests and Democratic must-wins where even a small uptick in Hispanic turnout could prove decisive. And in Texas, where (as in many places) Latino turnout has traditionally plunged in midterm elections, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) needs droves of Latinos who often don’t vote in midterms to show up if he hopes to upset Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
The House map could also be affected by a late surge in Hispanic voters, turning a big night for Democrats into a huge one.
There are nine close races where Hispanic and Asian American voters combine to account for at least one-third of the district’s population, enough to make or break the House majority for the GOP.
That group includes a number of pro-immigration Republicans facing tough races, like Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Will Hurd (R-TX), as well as a number of immigration hardliners whose districts have grown steadily more diverse over the last decade. In that second group are members Reps. Pete Sessions (R-TX) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), both of whom have cosponsored legislation drafted by Rep. Steve King (R-IA) to curtail birthright citizenship.
It was notable that Curbelo, who’s locked in a tossup race in a district with many Cuban Americans that tend to vote more Republican, was one of the first Republicans out blasting Trump’s latest proposal:
Birthright citizenship is protected by the Constitution, so no @realDonaldTrump you can’t end it by executive order. What we really need is broad immigration reform that makes our country more secure and reaffirms our wonderful tradition as a nation of immigrants. https://t.co/7xlbfrt6rW
— Carlos Curbelo (@carloslcurbelo) October 30, 2018
“The birthright thing is even more problematic for Carlos Curbelo than the caravan thing, which is why he came out against it today,” Ana Navarro, a longtime GOP strategist and frequent Trump critic, told TPM.
And while Democrats have essentially conceded defeat in one Hispanic-heavy district, against Rep. David Valadao (R-CA), they think there’s solid evidence that Latinos are turning out at much higher rates than the last two midterms, especially in urban and suburban areas.
“There’s definitely going to be a boost over 2014 numbers. We’re seeing that in our tracking poll, we saw that in the primaries,” Matt Barreto, a pollster with Latino Decisions and a Hispanic vote expert, told TPM. “The big question is whether there’s going to be this extra surge from Latinos above and beyond the overall increase in turnout? And there it’s going to get spotty — some candidates are earning it and others are leaving a lot on the table.”
Many GOP strategists shrugged at the idea that Trump’s latest declaration would break through in most places, however.
“There are so many issues out there stealing headlines. I don’t see this one suddenly emerging at the top in Hispanic neighborhoods,” former Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-TX), a Trump backer whose old House district overlaps a lot with Hurd’s current one, told TPM.
And the Hispanic vote is far from monolithic. California Latinos have historically been much more Democratic than those in Texas, and voters in urban centers in both states, like El Paso, Houston and Orange County, are turning out in far greater numbers than in rural territory in California’s Central Valley and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.
Still, Republicans had been a lot more confident about both Denham in the Central Valley and Hurd who represents the Rio Grande Valley a few weeks ago. The National Republican Congressional Committee had to come back in with last-minute TV ads in his border district to shore him up in recent days.
Democrats are also feeling good about Nevada, where they’ve spent years cultivating a Latino turnout operation. But they’re less confident about Arizona, where Democrats had little campaign infrastructure before this year. In Florida, Hispanic voters are very different — GOP-leaning Cuban Americans and Puerto Rican voters who are strongly Democratic but are already citizens and are less motivated by immigration issues. Early voting there suggests Hispanic turnout is on pace to be higher significantly than in past midterms — triple the pace of 2014, while white voters have doubled their rate from that year. But it’s as not quite as clear whose voters are turning out.
While GOP strategists admit some Hispanic voters are furious at Trump and ready to take it out on his party, it’s unclear whether his latest attacks would do anything that he hasn’t already guaranteed with his previous rhetoric and actions, like his disastrous push over the summer to separate migrant families at the border.
“If Hispanic voters were going to be motivated by Trump’s comments or actions they would already be motivated,” one House GOP strategist working on a number of races told TPM.
Other Republicans were much more worried about what Trump’s remarks might do to spur minority turnout, however.
That includes retiring Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA):
We all know challenges of suburban R’s. The bloc of competitive R held districts less impacted by POTUS thus far are those w high # of immigrants. So now POTUS, out of nowhere, brings birthright citizenship up. Besides being basic tenet of America, it’s political malpractice.
— Ryan Costello (@RyanCostello) October 30, 2018
It won’t be clear until election day whether Democrats did enough to get Hispanic voters to the polls. While Trump’s closing message could help his party win key red-state races, it could prove a double-edged sword. But Latino vote experts say their candidates need to be doing all they can to highlight Trump’s latest comments to the Hispanic community.
“This barrage of anti-immigrant rhetoric is just serving to intensify the anger and frustration in the Latino community which generally means it should be pushing more people to the polls,” said Barreto. “But it’s contingent on the candidates in those races making a big deal out of it.”