11/07/2014 11:38 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

Both Parties Must Act on Immigration, or Pay Price With Latino Voters

On November 4, Latino voters went to the polls motivated by one issue above all others -- immigration reform.

In an election eve poll of Latino voters conducted by Latino Decisions, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and partner organizations, 45 percent of Latino voters selected immigration reform as their number one priority for politicians to address. What's more, 67 percent of Latino voters described immigration reform as the most important or one of the most important issues that affected their decision to vote and for whom to vote in these midterm elections.

The salience of immigration as a driving issue for Latino voters holds significant implications for both parties.

In a year when the Democrats needed strong Hispanic support to hold onto Senate seats in states like Colorado and North Carolina, their decision to delay action on immigration cost them Latino votes. Consider the case of North Carolina Democratic Senator Kay Hagan, who pressured President Obama to postpone much-needed administrative relief for undocumented families. Senator Hagan's actions cost her Latino voters in North Carolina -- two thirds of whom know someone who is undocumented -- and may have cost her seat in the Senate. Of the Democratic candidates included in the election eve poll mentioned above, Senator Hagan received the lowest level of Latino support.

Across the country, the Democrat share of the Latino vote saw significant slippage. Even those Democratic candidates with strong immigration records failed to campaign on the issue effectively. Take outgoing Colorado Senator Mark Udall -- although Senator Udall spoke against the President's decision to delay executive action on immigration, according to the election eve poll, 47 percent of Latino voters in Colorado didn't know the Senator's position on immigration reform. While Senator Udall secured the support of 71 percent of Latino voters this year, he fell well short of President Obama's mark of 87 percent of the Latino electorate in 2012. In a year when immigration was the top Latino priority, Senator Udall's reluctance to champion his pro-immigration reform stances cost him Hispanic votes -- and perhaps, like Hagan, his seat in the Senate as well.

The Republican Party, though victorious for the moment, should remember that the 2016 elections will be nothing like the elections of 2014. Midterm elections bring an older, less diverse and generally more conservative electorate to the voting booth, while the electorate in presidential elections includes many more young people, women, and Black, Asian and Latino voters. The 2016 elections will also bring a different map of open Senate seats to the table, with many more contests in states with large Latino populations, including Arizona, Colorado, California, Florida, Illinois and Nevada. If the GOP hopes to win the Presidency in 2016 and retain control of the Senate, the party needs a serious strategy for competing for Latino voters, two thirds of whom think Republicans either don't care about or are hostile to the Hispanic community; and 40 percent of whom would find it difficult to support Republican candidates in future races, given the GOP's hardline stance on immigration reform.

Both parties face a critical test in the coming weeks that will signal whether they are up to the task of winning over Hispanic voters. The President must act swiftly and boldly to provide relief to millions of immigrants facing family separation. Democrats in Congress must heed the lesson of Kay Hagan and Mark Udall's Senate defeats, and offer full-throated support of the President's action.

Executive action is as much a test for Republicans as it is for Democrats. If Republicans stand in the way, they will be tarnished as the Party that opposed relief for millions of Latino immigrant families, and will pay a price with Hispanic voters.

The 2014 midterms are over, but 2016 is coming soon. Latino voters will be pivotal. Latinos may not have spoken loudly in 2014, but they spoke clearly, and they want immigration reform. Both parties would do well to listen.