Tuesday was a great night for Republicans, but it would have been better yet had Sen. Harry Reid gone down to defeat. And while many analysts have debated the role the tea party played in a few high-profile Republican losses on Election Day, including that of Reid's opponent Sharron Angle, the real story is what happened with the Hispanic vote.
Hispanics made up 18 percent of those voting in the Nevada election -- a much larger than average showing in a non-presidential election. Had Angle won as large a share of Hispanics as did the successful Republican gubernatorial candidate, Brian Sandoval, she'd be Senator-elect Angle today. Instead, she chose to engage in illegal-immigrant bashing as her theme in the last days of the election, with reprehensible ads that depicted illegal immigrants as stealing jobs from Nevadans and terrorizing families as violent gang members.
Republicans faced a similar problem in Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett managed to squeak to victory over his Republican challenger Ken Buck. In this race, however, it was less Buck's direct missteps on the immigration issue that cost him the race. Buck's problem was former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo's presence on the ballot as an Independent running for governor.
Tancredo is the bete noire of illegal immigration and the prospect that he might actually win the governorship -- he polled second in the race, well ahead of Republican Dan Maes -- brought out a big Hispanic vote. In their get-out-the-vote efforts, Democrats targeted nearly 90,000 Hispanic voters who only sporadically vote in non-presidential elections, and exit polls suggest the efforts paid off.
Angle won less than 10 percent of Hispanic votes and Beck less than 20 percent. Hispanics generally vote Democratic -- but they are not monolithic voters similar to African-Americans. In six of the presidential elections since 1972, Hispanics have given Republican candidates 30 percent or more of their votes. Republicans do not have to win a majority of Hispanic votes, even in heavily Hispanic states -- but they cannot totally alienate Hispanic voters in those states either. And much of the difference has to do with tone.
Most Americans -- including most Hispanics -- want control of our borders. They don't want people -- or worse, drugs -- flowing into the country through porous borders. But it is possible to run tough-on-illegal-immigration campaigns without resorting to demonizing all illegal immigrants as criminals and welfare cheats. Republican Governor-elect Susana Martinez managed to do so to win in New Mexico, as did Governor-elect Sandoval, and Florida Senator-elect Marco Rubio. Although all three are Hispanics, their positions, not their ethnicity, mattered most for how they fared.
Martinez promised to repeal New Mexico's current law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and ran on her record as a border-county prosecutor who targeted the Mexican drug cartels. But she did not feel it necessary to accuse illegal aliens of stealing jobs or run ads like Angle's in which all the Hispanics pictured were tattooed thugs.
Only 8 percent of voters Tuesday said that illegal immigration was the most important issue in the campaign, according to exit polls. And even in Arizona, where anti-illegal immigration sentiment is highest in the nation, two GOP challengers who made the issue the centerpiece of their campaigns went down to defeat.
The lesson for the Republicans should be to tamp down the rhetoric and get serious about fixing the immigration mess. If Republicans want to win the presidency in 2012, they're going to need to carry heavily Hispanic states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, which went for Barack Obama in 2008. Republicans now have a new slew of Hispanic office holders who could help lead the way by advocating market-based legal immigration reform coupled with strong border enforcement.
But the GOP may instead follow the siren call of anti-immigrant groups like the Center for Immigration Studies, whose director has touted the election results as producing at least 50 more votes against increasing legal immigration. If the Republican Party becomes the anti- legal immigration party, it can write off any hope of ever winning back Hispanic voters -- and that could mean writing off its chances to recapture the White House in 2012.