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Immigration reformers make their stand in Colorado

After fruitlessly courting Republican support for immigration reform, immigration activists are itching to make the GOP pay for their hard swerve to the right.
Rep. Cory Gardner delivers a speech to Republican delegates at the state GOP Congress, in Boulder, Colo., April 12, 2014.
Rep. Cory Gardner delivers a speech to Republican delegates at the state GOP Congress, in Boulder, Colo., April 12, 2014.

DENVER -- With immigration reform officially dead in the House, activists are itching to punish the GOP for their hard swerve to the right. The problem has been finding the right place to do it in a midterm election fought overwhelmingly in conservative-leaning states and Congressional districts with relatively few Latino and Asian voters.

Enter, Colorado, which may be reformers’ last chance to prove they can make the GOP pay a price for their intransigence before the next presidential election. There, activists are organizing to defeat three-term Republican Rep. Mike Coffman in his re-election bid and, more importantly, working to thwart GOP Rep. Cory Gardner in his campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.

The race between Udall and Gardner is among the most competitive in the country and could be a bellwether for control of the Senate. A July NBC News/Marist poll gave Udall a 48-41 lead over Gardner while more recent surveys have put the race closer.

"The stakes are very high,” Patty Kupfer, the Denver-based managing director of pro-reform advocacy group America’s Voice, told msnbc. “This is the place Republicans will either get the message or not get the message. This is the litmus test for whether they can get away with it.”

"I will do everything in my power ... to make sure [Gardner] is not elected."'

Last week, Kupfer joined leaders from the Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition Action Fund and Mi Familia Vota to announce a new “accountability project” with the goal of talking to 45,000 voters in immigrant communities about reform as part of a registration and turnout drive. The SEIU, whose offices hosted the event, has already run Spanish language ads targeting Gardner and Hoffman, as has the pro-reform Alliance For Citizenship. 

“I will do everything in my power, my community will do anything in our power, to make sure [Gardner] is not elected,” Sonia Marquez, northern director for CIRC, told msnbc. 

This wasn’t the role immigration groups hoped to play at the outset of the election cycle. In fact, activists originally saw Gardner and Coffman as promising candidates to help put reform over the top in the House. 

Marquez personally spent more than a year trying to win Gardner’s support for immigration reform. Under her guidance, activists met with him personally, held rallies across his district, and organized roundtable discussions with supportive local businesses, all with the goal of making Gardner comfortable with legislation granting legal status to undocumented immigrants. Gardner offered them encouraging words throughout and his staff was friendly and accessible, but he never quite took the leap, always telling constituents that while he wanted the GOP to address immigration he opposed the Senate’s bipartisan plan. Instead, Gardner said he favored passing smaller bills to address border security, increase interior enforcement, and establish a new guest worker program first before he’d consider legalization.

“We have to have a potential legal solution [for the undocumented], that’s obviously going to be part of this answer,” Gardner told msnbc. “But I don’t know when the timing of that will be.”

Finally, Marquez gave Gardner an ultimatum: Either release your own plan for the undocumented or face the consequences. The deadline passed and Marquez and her fellow activists occupied Gardner’s office with a mariachi band to mark the point of no return.

“I told them this was not the route I wanted to take,” Marquez said. “I’d rather be able to sit at a table and try to figure this out.”

Gardner said he was disappointed with how things turned out as well. Despite reports to the contrary, he told msnbc he had tried to sell his colleagues on the House GOP’s ill-fated immigration principles and shared activists’ goals of passing significant legislation. 

“It’s a shame, I thought we were working very well together,” he said of his relationship with pro-reform groups. “I would like to see them work with people opposed to immigration reform instead of trying to play politics with people who support immigration reform.”

This gets at a challenge for immigration advocates. It’s easy to rally their base against cartoonishly nativist Republicans like Iowa Congressman Steve King or Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks, but to win where it matters they have to demonstrate that members who claim to be reformers themselves are what’s holding legislation back.  

There’s a reason Gardner is so careful about his positioning on the issue. Over the last decade, Democrats have dominated statewide races in Colorado thanks to strong performances with the growing Latino community and moderate suburban voters. They also enjoy a powerful political machine in the state led by wealthy progressives like Democratic Rep. Jared Polis to make sure their base turns out.

These advantages held up in Colorado even in 2010, an otherwise historic election year for the GOP. In Colorado, Ken Buck, the Republican Senate nominee and former prosecutor famous for leading raids against undocumented workers, went down in defeat, as did former GOP congressman and anti-immigration crusader Tom Tancredo, who ran for governor on a third party ticket. Both candidates lost more than 80% of the Latino vote

"It’s a difficult year for incumbents in any party."'

Between those two races and Obama’s comfortable 2012 victory, Colorado is emerging as a symbol of Democrats’ ascendant demographic coalition.

But there’s reason for Latino groups to worry whether their winning streak might be coming to an end at the worst possible time. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s approval ratings have flagged over the last year along with Obama’s, and Republicans won two recall elections against state legislators who voted for a new gun control law. It’s possible that Democrats are due for backlash after controlling what’s still a relative swing state for so long. 

“It’s a difficult year for incumbents in any party,” Hickenlooper told msnbc.

Just as importantly, Republicans in the state believe they have nominated far less divisive candidates at the top of ticket this time. They include Gardner, whose entrance in the race prompted Buck to drop out, and gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez, who narrowly defeated Tancredo in the Republican primary in June. Some Republicans believe they’re so well positioned this year that twin losses in November would mean Colorado has irretrievably turned blue. 

“As Nixon famously said: ‘They don’t have me to kick around anymore,’” Tancredo told msnbc. “Everything that the Republican Party establishment wants they got in terms of candidates, money, and general overall political environment.” 

Gardner’s take on immigration may be vague but it’s still miles away from Tancredo's. While Gardner has only endorsed a path to legal status for young undocumented immigrants who join the military, he’s also one of only a handful of Republicans to vote against a recent House bill that would have ended the White House’s sweeping deferred action program for DREAMers -- young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Activists call this a flip flop: Gardner also voted for an amendment last year backed by Congressman Steve King, Tancredo’s border hawk heir in the House, that would defund the deferred action program. Gardner’s campaign claims the vote was meant as a message to the president about executive action, not a vote to deport people.

Coffman has gone even further than Gardner in embracing some aspects of immigration reform: He endorsed a path to citizenship for DREAMers as well as a path to legal status for law-abiding adults in 2013, a major reversal from the days when he aligned himself with Tancredo in campaign materials (a time when his district also contained far fewer Latino voters). 

For Republicans in Colorado and around the country, these campaigns make for an interesting test case. If they significantly improve their performance with Hispanic voters compared to 2010, it could usher in a new stopgap tactic for the party while immigration reform remains on ice: Move to the right on the issue nationally, but give vulnerable Republicans freedom back home to tack rhetorically to the center. 

“I think the calculation they’re making is that literally all they have to do is change their rhetoric and as long as they’re not Tom Tancredo and they’re not demonizing immigrants, no one is going to be playing close enough attention as to whether they’re actually acting,” Kupfer said. “Our job is to make sure people know what they’re saying and what they’re doing do not add up.”

Like practically every GOP campaign in recent memory, including Mitt Romney’s, Republicans argue Latino voters are more interested in their positions on bread and butter issues this year than immigration.

“Who’s been waiting longest for jobs? Hispanics! They’re among the highest unemployed,” Beauprez told msnbc. “Who’s getting the short end on education? Our minority children, especially our Hispanics. They’re sick and tired of promises that never materialize.”

The economic message didn’t work for Republicans in attracting Hispanic support in 2012, 2010, 2008, or 2006. And it’s an open question whether a more measured tone on immigration will give them the space to make the economic argument more effectively.

Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district includes the heavily Latino city of Pueblo, never backed a path to citizenship. But he addressed the issue by holding town halls, advocating for new guest worker programs, and calling on the House to address the “broken” system. He has said DREAMers should be handled “compassionately.”

“We haven’t shied away from it, but … as I’m holding these town hall meetings our number one issue is frankly jobs and the economy,” he told msnbc. 

"We need comprehensive immigration reform and Congressman Gardner continues to try to have it both ways."'

At the same time, Republicans have tried to undermine their Democratic opponents’ image as unambiguous immigration champions. Udall, for example, while still in the House, voted with Tancredo for a harsh enforcement bill back in 2005 when the politics in the state were more ambiguous. Asked about the vote, Udall noted to msnbc that he publicly decried some of its immigration measures at the time, but wanted to lock in national security recommendations from the 9/11 Commission.

For Democrats, the goal is to prevent Republicans like Gardner from claiming they’ve taken the middle ground on immigration. Activists hope that the White House intensifies the difference between the parties next month by taking executive action to protect more immigrants from deportation, an option the administration is considering and that Udall said he supports. 

“We need comprehensive immigration reform and Congressman Gardner continues to try to have it both ways,” Udall told msnbc. “[He says] maybe we should provide citizenship to undocumented members of the military but at the same time we'll deport their parents.”

Udall’s ads have focused on economic issues and reproductive rights rather than immigration, but campaign aides say immigration fits into a broader campaign to tag Gardner with the “extremist” label that’s bedeviled other Colorado Republicans.

“My record is in the mainstream and the more I watch Congressman Gardner, he’s literally running away from his record and his record is in the extreme whether its women’s reproductive rights or immigration reform,” Udall told a women’s luncheon in Colorado Springs last week.

While Coffman’s Democratic opponent Andrew Romanoff has not aired ads on immigration, he pushed the issue hard in their first debate this month.

“The Congressman has mentioned a step by step approach,” Romanoff told the audience. “That would be fine if Congress were willing to take a single step.”

Immigration activists argue Republicans are underestimating the political peril in not decisively backing comprehensive reform even if Democrats have spent less time and money on the issue than others. Several activists and volunteers around the state brought up the same statistic from a June Latino Decisions poll: “63% of Colorado Hispanic voters personally know someone who is an undocumented immigrant.”  

“My mom came without papers, now she’s a teacher,” one teenaged volunteer with Mi Familia Vota told msnbc as he canvassed a Latino neighborhood in Aurora, stopping by homes where his smartphone app told him there were potential unregistered voters. “That’s what keeps me interested in this issue.”