DENVER — Republicans in search of a way to oppose President Barack Obama's moves on immigration without alienating the nation's fast-growing population of Hispanic voters can find a playbook in Colorado.
GOP Rep. Cory Gardner won election to the Senate in the midterms in a state where 14 percent of voters are Hispanic. His GOP colleague, Rep. Mike Coffman, won re-election in a district where 14 percent of residents were born in foreign countries.
Both opposed last year's failed bipartisan effort in the Senate to overhaul the nation's immigration system, a top priority of immigrant-rights groups, especially its centerpiece: a pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. Both also spoke warmly of the contributions made by immigrants and shifted to the center on other immigration issues. Coffman even learned Spanish.
Coffman went on to win his race by 9 points. Gardner tied Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in two heavily Hispanic counties that normally vote overwhelmingly Democratic on his way to a narrow victory. Democrats acknowledge the two Republicans benefited from a change in how they talk about immigration, departing from a bombastic approach that emphasizes border security and deportations.
"Villainization is a huge issue," said James Mejia, former president of Denver's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "If you can stop being nasty about it, people will listen to the things you have to say."
For years, Republicans have struggled to balance a desire to improve the party's standing among Hispanic and Asian-American voters and the rock-solid opposition among conservative to anything they consider "amnesty" for people living here illegally.
Hispanic and Asian-Americans overwhelmingly voted Democratic in 2012, after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney called for some immigrants to practice "self-deportation" and Obama responded by allowing many immigrants brought to the country illegally as children to stay and work.
Colorado's Hispanic voters had helped Democrats win every race for Senate, governor and president since 2004. Earlier this year, some Colorado Republicans feared they were in for a repeat when Ken Buck, who as a county district attorney took aggressive action against immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, started the race for the GOP Senate nomination as the favorite.
But Gardner cleared the field when he entered the Senate race and, during the summer, took steps toward the center. After initially voting to repeal Obama's executive order allowing children brought to the country illegally to work in the U.S., he voted in August to uphold it and said he supports citizenship for such immigrants who served in the military. He also said he'd be open to letting people who are in the country illegally "earn" legal residence, though not necessarily citizenship.
Perhaps as important, Gardner spoke warmly of immigrants. Asked at an event whether jobs should go to Americans or people living here illegally, he said the system needs to serve those who want to build a better life for their families.
Some immigrant rights groups were frustrated that Udall's campaign did not do more to highlight his differences with Gardner. Republicans, meanwhile, said if they can talk about immigration without insulting immigrant voters, it allows them to address other priorities.
"Immigration is important, but not as important as a strong economy that creates jobs," said Jerry Natividad, a Colorado businessman who sits on the Republican National Committee's Hispanic outreach committee.
Coffman agreed to participate in a Spanish-language television debate against his Democratic challenger, who is fluent in the language. Like Gardner, he backed a proposal in the House that would have created a path to citizenship for some immigrants who served in the military.
He reiterated his support for that proposal in a statement last week that, on one hand, criticized Obama for using immigration as a political wedge issue but also rejected forcing a government shutdown — a popular idea among immigration hardliners — to stop the president's actions.
The RNC sent field staff to organize in Colorado's Hispanic community and the state party focused on turning out voters in the Democratic strongholds of Adams and Pueblo counties, which are respectively 36 and 41 percent Hispanic. Gardner's campaign and other conservative groups spent $1 million on Spanish-language ads, featuring GOP luminaries such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"That helped win the confidence of a segment of our electorate that is not only of great importance but has contributed so much to our state," said Ryan Call, the Spanish-speaking chairman of the Colorado Republican party.
Patty Kupfer, the Denver-based managing director of the immigrant rights group America's Voice, acknowledged that Gardner and Coffman were successful "muddying the issue" in the election. But she argued they succeeded in part because Obama's previous inaction had angered immigrants. Now that Obama is taking action, duplicating that success won't be as easy.
"I just don't see how Republicans can use the same strategy and expect to win at this point," she said.
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