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Latino vote hints at hope and danger for GOP

Republicans lost the Latino vote by a large margin nationally, but the state results were discouraging for immigration reform supporters.

DENVER, Colo. -- Latino activists and immigration reform advocates knew going into the midterms that 2014 wasn’t the ideal election to punish Republicans for killing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The House was largely insulated from any serious challenge, few Senate races up for grabs had significant Latino voting populations, and turnout in off years tends to draw older, white, conservative voters. Even by that standard, however, Tuesday night was rough.

"Gardner did a much better job confusing the community, but the reality is Udall did not embrace the issue."'

Nationally, Democrats won 64% of Latino voters, according to exit polls -- exactly halfway between their 60% level in 2010 and 68% in 2012. The numbers suggest the GOP still has major hurdles with one of the fastest-growing voting blocs in the nation, an issue that will loom large in 2016. Republican pollsters preemptively warned the party earlier this week not to get too excited by their gains on Tuesday given these broader problems.

The state performances were less encouraging for Democrats, however, and hinted at a possible way forward for Republicans. Latino activists spent months in Colorado organizing voters on behalf of Democratic Senator Mark Udall, a strong supporter of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, against Republican Cory Gardner, who had voted to defund the president’s program protecting DREAMers and opposed the Senate’s bipartisan bill. Colorado’s growing Latino population had made it a symbol of Democrats’ bright demographic future, and Obama won the state twice with their strong backing.

When the returns came in, however, Gardner won the race handily. Not only that, exit polls showed him tying Udall with Latino voters. It’s worth taking those numbers with a grain of salt, as an election eve poll by pollster Latino Decisions showed Udall up by a wide margin. Nonetheless, activists on the ground warned before the election and complained after the ballots came in that Gardner showed surprising strength in the community.

RELATED: Cory Gardner defeats Mark Udall in critical Colorado Senate race

What was Gardner’s secret? Unlike previous Colorado GOP candidates, he tacked to the center on immigration rhetorically and sold himself as an ally of the reform movement, to the fury of Latino groups trying to defeat him. In the final weeks of the race, he broke with his party to oppose a House bill to deport DREAMers. At the same time, he avoided any concrete position on legal status for undocumented immigrants that might outrage conservatives.

Latino leaders were upset that Udall didn’t run ads focused on immigration, allowing Gardner’s makeover to go relatively unchallenged. 

“Gardner did a much better job confusing the community, but the reality is Udall did not embrace the issue,” Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Famillia Vota, told msnbc. “For what reason, I don’t know.” 

"We believe when we show up, when we listen ... we’re going to make gains in that community."'

Ali Pardo, a spokeswoman for the RNC, credited Gardner with appealing to Latino voters directly on issues like education and the economy. 

“We believe when we show up, when we listen, when we serve as a voice for a community, we’re going to make gains in that community,” Pardo said.

Gardner’s race suggested that a candidate could win in a heavily Latino state even without totally embracing immigration reformers' demands, so long as they sounded friendly enough. That’s a lesson that might benefit Republicans in presidential races and congressional races alike. 

But if Gardner looked encouraging for GOP outreach, other results raised questions about whether his success could be easily replicated. A number of GOP candidates who won on Tuesday -- including Georgia’s David Perdue, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, and Kansas’ Pat Roberts -- ran hard against “amnesty” and are likely to pull the new Republican majority even further to the right on immigration. In New Hampshire, Scott Brown came up just short but made the race competitive while running the hardest of all of them on the issue, warning voters daily about threats from Ebola to ISIS crossing the border. This is not a party that looks like it’s about to capitalize on Gardner’s performance in a productive way, much to the despair of Latino groups.

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With the Hispanic share of the electorate potentially doubling by 2030, that’s a serious issue for the GOP in the long term. In the short term, however, these races pose a dilemma for Democrats and especially the White House. Up until recently, it was assumed that immigration was an unambiguous winning issue for Democrats that fired up Latino voters while largely flying under the radar with other demographics. Republicans this year found that the issue was still useful in revving up the conservative base, while their Democratic targets were worried enough about the issue to pressure Obama into delaying a long-planned executive action on deportation procedures.

Obama has promised to act before the end of the year, but some Latino groups blamed the delay for demoralizing voters and muddying their message. One group, Presente Action, even ran ads against Democratic candidates who voted for immigration reform but opposed executive action. 

"There’s no one to blame for the suppressed number of Latino votes other than the President and Democrats, who clearly miscalculated the power of the Latino electorate in a tremendous way,” Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente Action, said in a statement on Tuesday. “This year’s midterm results illustrate a vote of no confidence in President Obama and numerous Democratic candidates, whose failure to address key issues discouraged much of the Latino community from going to the polls."

There will be enormous pressure on Obama to follow through on his promise of major action or risk alienating Latinos even further. But he also risks sparking a further backlash on the right with the move, potentially giving conservatives another banner to rally around heading into the next election.