Democrats Missing Opportunities in Top Tier Latino Influence House Districts

Recent polling conducted by Latino Decisions continues to find that comprehensive immigration reform is an animating issue for Latino voters and if immigration reform does not happen this year, most Latino voters will hold the Republican Party responsible.  Yet, the ability of Latinos and other pro-immigration reform voters to reward or punish members of Congress for their handling of immigration necessitates a competitive electoral environment where marginal shifts in both the composition and preferences of the electorate can make the difference.

Earlier, we identified seats in the House of Representatives held by both Democrats and Republicans that were closely contested in 2012 and that have significant shares of voting age Latinos.  As we argued at the time, it is in these “Latino influence districts” where the dynamics of immigration reform are expected to be most salient come November.  Now, as primary season begins to wane and the fall match-ups take shape, we can begin to assess these districts in more detail.

Unfortunately, for immigration reform advocates there are likely to be fewer opportunities to exert electoral accountability for either the passage or failure of comprehensive immigration reform than our initial analysis suggested.  Much of this stems from the difficulty that the Democratic Party is having fielding and funding quality candidates in many Latino influence districts.

Most notably, last week Democrat Lee Rogers failed to finish in the top two in the eight-candidate jungle primary for California’s 25th district.  With Buck McKeon’s retirement, the seat presented an opportunity for the Democrats to further assert their dominance over California’s House’s delegation and more importantly, replace in Congress an inconsistent supporter of immigration reform.[1]  Instead, it will be two Republicans on the ballot in November competing to represent a district that narrowly went for Romney in 2012 (1.9%) and that is home to a 2010 Latino voting age population of 32%.

Perhaps no state better illustrates the Democrats’ recruitment woes than Florida.  The Democrats will not have a candidate in Florida’s 13th district.  Instead, two minor party candidates will challenge Republican David Jolly, who narrowly won the seat this winter in a special election.  The swing district has a 2010 Latino voting age population of 7% and was narrowly carried by Obama (1.5%) in 2012.

In Florida’s 10th, three lackluster Democrats are competing in the August primary to face Daniel Webster.  Webster won in 2012 by 3.4% while underperforming Mitt Romney by 3.3% in a district with a 2010 Latino voting age population of over 14%.  The Democrats also struggled to recruit a quality challenger in Florida’s 16th before first-time candidate and former professional football player Henry Lawrence filed to run against Vern Buchanan.  Buchanan won in 2012 by 7% in a district with a 2010 Latino voting age population of 9%.  While Webster has come out in favor of a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, he, like Buchanan voted in favor of Steve King’s DACA amendments (see note one).

The Democrats also will not have a candidate in North Carolina’s 9th district to compete against incumbent Robert Pittenger.  Pittenger ran seven points behind Romney in 2012 in a district with a small but growing Latino voting age population.

Other touted Democratic challengers running in key districts are failing to attract party backing.  In announcing where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has reserved over $43 million in advertising buys for the fall, only nine Democrats running in Republican held tier one or tier two Latino influence districts are included.  To be sure, many of the candidates who will be receiving DCCC support in the fall are vulnerable Democratic incumbents; many representing districts with large Latino voting age populations.  Still, eight candidates included in the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program did not make the cut including three candidates running in Latino influence districts:  Erin Bilbray (NV-3), Sean Eldridge (NY-19), and Rocky Lara (NM-2)

Of the three, Bilbary is perhaps the most puzzling.  She is the daughter of a former member of Congress who was handpicked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to be the Democrat’s candidate.  Her opponent, Joe Heck, represents a district that was carried twice by Obama and has a 2010 Latino voting age population of 13.5%.

Heck’s attempts to navigate the immigration terrain have won him few friends on either side of the issue.  After coming out in favor of pathway to citizenship and working for months on legislation akin to the DREAM Act, Heck did not introduce the bill because he was unable to garner support among his Republican House colleagues.  Instead, he has voted for Steve King’s DACA amendments and earlier this month, his staff called in the police to disperse a group of immigration reform protestors from his district office.  After the episode in which five protestors were cited for trespassing, Heck’s campaign account tweetedJoe Heck will not be bullied into amnesty by @erinbilbray…”

Updated campaign finance reports indicate that Heck has more than three and half times as much cash on hand as Bilbray, who has raised nearly $800,000.  However, without party resources to augment her campaign, Bilbray will have a much more difficult time unseating what should be one of the most vulnerable House Republicans.

Indeed, with six months until the 2014 election, the inability of Democrats to make the most of opportunities like California’s 25th, Florida’s 13th, or Nevada’s 3rd, weakens the electoral incentive for House Republicans to move on comprehensive immigration reform even though a clear majority of Americans favor legislation akin to what passed the Senate last June.   Absent these pressures, incumbent Republicans like Joe Heck can continue to mouth their support for comprehensive immigration reform while at the same time voting to support the hardline policies championed by Steve King with little fear of voter repudiation at the ballot box.

[1] Most recently, McKeon received a 59% rating on the 2014 National Immigration Reform Score Card and has voted in favor of amendments authored by Representative Steve King of Iowa defunding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and eliminating the Department of Homeland Security’s discretion to delay deportations for low-priority unauthorized immigrants, including dreamers.  Although McKeon is a cosponsor of the Enlist Act, which would allow unauthorized immigrants who were younger than 15 and who have been in the United States before 2012 to enlist in the military, he did not include the provision in the National Defense Authorization Act even though he chairs the House Armed Service Committee. McKeon also does not support a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants presently in the country.

David Damore is a senior analyst at Latino Decisions, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and a Senior Nonresident Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program.