When President Obama announced that he would delay executive action to protect some undocumented immigrants from deportation until after the midterms, it was widely recognized as a political move intended to shield Democrats from backlash. The logic never made much sense—certainly not from a moral perspective, but neither from a political one. It wasn’t clear how delaying could actually improve already grim circumstances for vulnerable incumbents. Meanwhile, it was obvious that letting mass deportations continue on a purely political whim would alienate many Latino voters.
Well, that’s exactly how it played out. There’s no way to know if things would have been even uglier for the left had Obama issued the orders. But what the midterms did suggest is that the Democratic lock on the Latino vote has slipped. Not only the White House’s delay but also reluctance to embrace a pro-immigrant platform cost Democrats votes in key states.
Nowhere were Latino voters more important than in Colorado, where Mark Udall lost to Cory Gardner. Gardner knew it, and he ran as an ally to the immigrant community, even though he opposed the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform. Udall, despite his strong record of support for immigrant rights, never drew a stark distinction between himself and Gardner on the issue.
The result, according to figures released Wednesday by the polling group Latino Decisions, was that voters were confused about where the candidates stood on the issue—which more than two-thirds of Colorado’s Latinos identified as a priority at the polls. Forty-seven percent said they weren’t sure whether Udall supported immigration reform; 6 percent thought he opposed it. Gardner, meanwhile, got away with his bait-and-switch: only 38 percent knew he opposed reform.
Udall still won the Latino vote handily, 71 percent to 23 percent. However, that gap doesn’t look so great compared to other recent elections. Barack Obama pulled in 87 percent of Colorado’s Latino voters in 2012, and Democratic Senator Michael Bennet won with 80 percent of the vote in 2010. Turnout wasn’t bad in Colorado; it just wasn’t as deeply blue.
In fact, there was a dramatic decline in Latinos’ support for Democratic candidates in Senate, House and gubernatorial races all over the country. Kay Hagan, who lost her Senate seat in North Carolina to Tom Tillis, captured only 63 percent of the Latino vote, nine points below the support Obama had in 2012. Hagan ran to right on immigration; she opposed the Dream Act and executive action on deportation. It’s not clear whether her hardline stance won her any votes—certainly not enough to make a difference. What it did do was focus negative attention on her from the immigrant-rights community. After the White House delayed executive action, Hagan (along with several other Democratic candidates who’d asked for it) came under fire from groups like Presente, which ran ads in North Carolina that attacked her for siding “with the most anti-immigrant senators in Congress in support of the continued deportations of our community.”