11/22/2010 09:32 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can the GOP block DREAM Act, Immigration Reform, and Still Win in 2012?

Can the Republicans write off Latinos and take back the White House in 2012?  The answer is no.  Can they stand united in opposition to the popular DREAM Act in the lame duck session of Congress and block comprehensive immigration reform in the next Congress and win back Latinos?  The answer is no. 

Matthew Dowd, an advisor to George W. Bush, stated that back in 2000 he calculated that, “Republicans needed to win 35 percent of Hispanics to beat Democrats” but “given the steady increase in the number of Hispanic voters, he now believed Republicans needed to win a minimum of 40 percent to be competitive with Democrats” in presidential elections.  

In 2000 George W. Bush met that 35% mark and (with a huge assist from the Supreme Court) he won.  In 2004 Bush reached the magic threshold of 40% of the Latino vote and won.  In 2008 McCain won 31% of the Latino vote and lost. 

The reason the 40% threshold matters is that Latino voters play a huge role in the swing states of Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida.  Obama won 67% of the Latino vote in 2008 and turned all four of these swing states from red to blue. 

But in an otherwise historic mid-term election for their team in 2010, there’s some bad news for Republicans already measuring the drapes of the Oval Office.  In the 2010 mid-terms just 24% of Latinos voted for Republicans.  Despite predictions of a low Latino turnout in the mid-terms, Latino voters turned out in record numbers –spurred to vote largely by the immigration debate – and saved the Senate for the Democrats. 

In doing so, Latino voters made a little history themselves.  In every wave election since 1930, when one chamber of Congress flipped, both chambers flipped.  Were it not for the “Latino firewall” in the West, Mitch McConnell would be the Senate Majority Leader and Harry Reid would be on his way out. 

Here are some of the key results from election eve polling of Latino voters by Latino Decisions (information on why this is a more accurate assessment of Latino voter behavior than exit polling can be found here and here): In Nevada Harry Reid’s beat Sharron Angle among Latinos by 90% - 8%.  In Colorado Michael Bennet’s margin over Ken Buck among Latinos was 81% - 19%.  In California Barbara Boxer’s margin over Carly Fiorina among Latinos was 86% - 14. 

And were it not for this firewall in close gubernatorial contests, Meg Whitman would be on the short list for national office, Tom Tancredo would be the toast of Tea Party nation, and blue Illinois would have a red governor.  Instead, Jerry Brown beat Meg Whitman among Latinos by 86% - 13%.  John Hickenlooper’s margin over Tom Tancredo and Dan Maes among Latinos was 77% - 14% - 9%.  In Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s beat Bill Brady among Latinos by 83% - 13%. 

The only Republican to buck the trend was Marco Rubio who won 62% of the Hispanic vote in Florida – 78% from Cuban Americans and 40% of non-Cuban Latinos (meanwhile, neither Susan Martinez of New Mexico nor Brian Sandoval of Nevada won the majority of Latino voters in their successful gubernatorial races).  No wonder smart Republicans are dreaming of Rubio on the national ticket in 2012.  

With the exception of Florida and its more conservative Hispanic electorate, why did Latinos upend expectations and turn out to help Democrats defy history?  Here are the keys:

1) Immigration is a key factor in moving Latino voters.  According to the Latino Decisions polling, 48% of Latino voters chose either “jobs” or “the economy” as a top concern, while 37% chose “immigration.”  When asked how important the issue of immigration was in their decision to vote and who to vote for, 60% of Latino voters said it was very important and 34% said it was the most important issue. 

2) On immigration, the combination of Republicans going right and Democrats leaning into the issue proved to be a winner for the Democrats.  Key Republican candidates made all the wrong choices when it came to immigration. Sharron Angle’s despicable ads depicting Latino immigrants as thugs, Carly Fiorina’s embrace of the Arizona anti-immigrant law, Meg Whitman’s hypocritical general election scramble back to the center after a hard-right turn in her primary and Tom Tancredo’s long career as a nativist extremist -- all backfired.  At the same time, Harry Reid, Michael Bennet, Barbara Boxer, Jerry Brown, and John Hickenlooper all leaned directly into the issue of immigration in a way that appealed to both swing voters and Latino voters.  Alex Sink in Florida?  She failed to exploit Rick Scott’s hard line immigration stances and it probably cost her the governor’s race.  

3) The voter mobilization infrastructure for Latino immigrants is getting stronger every cycle.   Starting in the aftermath of Governor Pete Wilson’s demonization of Latino immigrants in his successful 1994 re-election campaign for California’s governor, the labor movement and community organizations in that state built a juggernaut of a Latino immigrant voter mobilization program.  It has since turned a once purple state blue.  That success is now being replicated in Nevada, Colorado, Florida and elsewhere.  This helps explain why voter apathy early in this cycle turned into record turnouts come Election Day.  These efforts will only get stronger. 

What does all of this mean for both parties going forward? 

1)    In the immediate future, Democrats should fight like hell to pass the DREAM Act in the lame duck session of Congress.  This might be the best and last chance the President and other Democrats have to deliver on the promise of legislative relief before 2012.  It will force Republicans to either further cement their anti-immigrant brand or negotiate something that can help about a million talented young immigrants go to college, serve in the military and work towards citizenship. 

2) The President will have to fight the good fight on immigration reform in the run up to 2012.  This past year the White House backed off of efforts to push comprehensive immigration reform because there was no Republican support.  The President cannot afford to make that mistake again.  His failure to fight hard created huge disappointment in the Latino community and created a huge vacuum that was filled by the Arizona anti-immigrant law and the Republican mantra of “border security first.”  The President, in coordination with Senate Democrats and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has to make a sincere and persistent effort to get Republicans to the negotiating table – or call them out for not doing so. 

3) Republicans will face a choice: find a way to cut a deal or risk losing a shot at retaking the White House.  Republican leaders – from John McCain and Jon Kyl to Mitt Romney and Haley Barbour – know all about the 40% Latino threshold rule.  Now they need to know that if they don’t work with Democrats to work on both border security and a way to deal pragmatically with the presence of 11 million unauthorized immigrants, they should expect a Democrats-only immigration reform proposal, announced with great fanfare, oh say right about when the Republican presidential primaries heat up.  This will cause the GOP’s presidential wannabes to lurch hard right to pander to the nativists in the base.  This dynamic, combined with the radical proposals that will emerge from the House, courtesy of Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steve King (R-IA), will make it impossible for the eventual GOP nominee to successfully run back to the center and reach the 40% threshold in the general election.  Call it the Meg Whitman effect. 

Republicans had a great election cycle in 2010.  But as the 2010 fight for the Senate revealed, the road to the White House will go through the Latino community.  They either change course or lose.  It’s as simple as that. 

Cross-posted at America's Voice.