Illegal-Immigration Fears Energize Republican Voter Base

URBANDALE, Iowa (McClatchy Washington Bureau/MCT) -
In this July 31, 2014 file photo, a Spanish and English welcome sign is seen above a door in a secured entrance area at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
In this July 31, 2014 file photo, a Spanish and English welcome sign is seen above a door in a secured entrance area at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

To Vinita Smith, the most important issue in this year’s congressional elections is simple: The government needs to protect Americans.

Securing the nation’s borders is crucial to that mission, said the retiree from Panora, Iowa, and so far, “I think this government is failing dismally.”

From the border to inland states such as Iowa with key elections, Republicans are agitated and energized by illegal immigration. Just in time for the fall campaign, the issue is being magnified by fears of Islamic State terrorists making their way into the U.S. through a porous border with Mexico, and anger at President Obama’s signal that he’ll act unilaterally after the elections to curb deportations of illegal immigrants.

“This issue works on so many levels,” said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “There are ethnic and racial overtones, and there are economic issues involved.” As well as the terrorist threat.

Democrats are in a bind. Latino voters have been increasingly loyal to the party. But Obama fears doing anything to stir more of a Republican backlash and has postponed a promised executive action that would provide temporary legal status for some of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants. Striving to assuage the Latino base, Vice President Joe Biden assured activists last week that Obama will take action after the election. The president, he said, is “going to do an awful lot” on immigration.

The issue won’t hurt the party, said Justin Barasky, the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee spokesman. “Republican efforts to continue dividing the country around comprehensive immigration reform show voters that they are the purveyors of the dysfunction in Washington that caused this mess in the first place,” he said.

Republicans, though, see a powerful tool for turning out their voters. Gallup found that 20 percent of Republicans now cite immigration as a top issue, up from 4 percent earlier this year.

Republican concerns were clear in Iowa, where Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat, and state Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican, are in a tight contest for a U.S. Senate seat.

At a roundtable arranged by McClatchy and The Iowa Republican, a partisan newsletter, in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, eight Republicans cited immigration as the election’s most important issue.

To some, the issue is economic. “I just left college and I have thousands of dollars’ worth of debt, yet there are illegals coming into our country that are demanding free college, and that is an insult to somebody like me, who has worked really hard to pay off their college debt,” said Jake Dagel, an Ankeny human rights activist.

Vinita Smith just wants to feel safe.

“I’m all for immigration,” she said. “But there’s no attempt by the Obama administration to stop people from coming in, and they have no idea who these people are. Are these radical Islamists speeding to the U.S.?”

Of the nine states with close Senate races this year, only Colorado has a sizable Latino voting population, 14 percent. In the others, Hispanics make up less than 5 percent of eligible voters, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

Yet endangered Democratic incumbents in many of those states are well aware of the issue’s power.