BY BRANA VLASIC California News Service
WASHINGTON -- The House's failure to pass immigration reform could create political trouble for a growing number of Republican representatives from districts with sharply rising Latino and Asian populations.
The problem is especially apparent in California, where Latino and Asian populations in Republican districts are triple the national average. Both groups gave President Obama more than 70 percent of their votes in 2012.
In four California districts, the 2012 election results were so close that the incumbents' margin of victory is smaller than the projected number of new eligible Latino and Asian voters turning 18 by 2014, according to an analysis by Tom Wong, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.
As the number of voting-age Latinos and Asians grows, there is mounting political pressure on Republicans to support an immigration measure that would create a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
"Latinos in California and across the nation are a huge demographic," said Congressman Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, whose district is more than 40 percent Latino.
Denham recently announced his support for a bill introduced by House Democrats that includes a path to citizenship. This comes despite Denham's previous opposition to California's version of the DREAM Act and his support for Arizona's controversial anti-immigration law.
The changing demographics of Denham's district help explain why he is one of only three House Republicans to have endorsed the Democratic bill.
Denham won the 2012 election by roughly 11,000 votes. According to Wong's analysis, there are 26,000 Latinos and Asians in his district who will turn 18 by 2014. Similar numbers confront Republicans Howard "Buck" McKeon from Palmdale, Gary Miller from Rancho Cucamonga and David Valadao from Bakersfield.
Valadao won by 18,045 votes in 2012, and there will be 41,382 Hispanics/Latinos and Asians who will turn 18 by next year, according to the analysis.
"As members look at the issue, they need to understand the changing demographics in the future,'' Denham said.
The Senate passed an immigration bill in June and Democrats have introduced a similar bill in the House. It is not clear that Republicans will schedule a vote and Democrats are using the GOP's hesitation to bring the bill to the floor to depict them as unsympathetic to immigrants.
Two large labor unions allied with the Democrats released a series of TV ads, which will run in Spanish in Bakersfield and other cities across the country, suggesting that Republicans treat undocumented immigrants as "animals'' while another quotes a GOP congressman saying he would do anything to stop the illegal immigrants "short of shooting them.''
The conventional wisdom is that many Republicans don't have to worry as much as those representing California. The average Republican-led district is just 11 percent Latino and 3 percent Asian, according to Wong's analysis.
But some members warn changing demographics could tip a close election and said the Republican Party will need to address immigration reform more if it wants to win in the future.
"On a national scale, for someone that wants to be president or be more of a national figure, I think they need to be smart on immigration and they have to pay attention and be part of the solution," said Valadao, whose district is roughly 73 percent Latino.
Like Denham, Valadao has announced his support for the Democratic immigration bill.
But very few Republicans are following Denham and Valadao's lead despite the rise in Latino voters.
"Over 2,000 Latino citizens across the country are turning 18 each day," said Clarissa Martinez from the National Council La Raza.
Wong has identified nearly three dozen vulnerable Republicans in the House who have indicated opposition to any legislation that allows illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
"Those Republicans who have large numbers of Latino voters are having significantly different opinions than the Republicans who hold the very white seats and don't have to worry about the Latino vote," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book and the former political coordinator of the California Republican Party.
But he noted that California Republicans are only competitive in a diminishing number of regions, and warned this could become a national trend.
"When most people talk about the national Republican Party, they say it might end up like the California Republican Party," Hoffenblum said.
Some California Republicans, including those from heavily Latino districts, have not shown any willingness to support any measure that includes a path to citizenship.
Miller, whose district is roughly 50 percent Latino, and McKeon, whose district is close to 40 percent Latino, have both said that the immigration system needs to fixed. But they focus more on border security and enforcement issues, which are less popular among Latino voters. Neither has endorsed measures to offer citizenship to undocumented immigrants.
Miller won the 2012 election by roughly 17,000 votes, but the number of Asians and Latinos who will turn 18 by 2014 in his district is more than 31,000.
Similarly, McKeon won his election in 2012 by less than a 23,000-vote margin over Democrat Lee Rogers. According to Wong's analysis, by the next election, nearly 25,000 new Latinos and Asians in the district will have turned 18.
"The district grows by 1 percent Latino every year and that's been the largest growing segment of the population," said Rogers, who plans to run against McKeon again in 2014.
"It's not that Republicans can't represent a Latino district, it's just that in certain cases they have made really outlandish comments about immigrants, Latinos in particular,'' Rogers said, pointing to a recent town hall meeting in which McKeon was talking about border enforcement and said, "There are people who can't tell the difference between a Hispanic person and an Arabic person.''
Wong noted that the demographic changes may not immediately translate into turnout, pointing out that not all eligible 18 year olds are going to vote.
"Demography is not destiny," he said.
Eric Goldman, who will manage Democrat Michael Eggman's campaign against Denham in 2014, acknowledged that demographic changes alone won't elect his candidate.
"But I think that the demographic shifts have created an opening that will help allow us to achieve victory,'' Goldman said.
By 2060, the Hispanic population will double to more than 128.8 million, which means that one in three U.S. residents will be Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In California, the Latino and white populations are roughly equal, which is among the reasons the Republicans have had such difficulty winning statewide elections.
Wong said that Republicans could learn from members like Denham who have exhibited more flexibility on immigration issues.
"California represents what the U.S. will look like in the future," he said. "What California's House Republicans are doing vis-a-vis immigration -- Jeff Denham being a good example -- should be on the radar for Republicans as a whole for this reason: they know how to win elections in diverse constituencies."
The California News Service-Washington is a project of the University of California's Washington Center and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Contact CNS at email@example.com.