It’s dark out. A grungy-looking band of (presumably Hispanic) immigrants enters through a hole in a chain-link fence, next to a lit-up “Enter Here” sign. The U.S. Border Patrol is there, but can only look on in frustration. The immigrants, to their profound surprise and delight, are greeted with balloons, fireworks, a marching band, a bilingual welcome banner, and a giant check made out to “All Illegal Aliens” for “A Lot of Taxpayer Money.” They are driven away in limousine, giant check in tow, as they high-five and fist-pump out the windows.
“Charlie Melancon — thanks to him, we might as well put out a welcome sign for illegal aliens. Melancon made it easier for illegals to get taxpayer-funded benefits and actual welfare checks. . . . It’s no wonder illegals keep coming and coming and coming,” says the narrator of the 30-second campaign ad, titled “Welcome Prize.” Immigration advocates called it the “most racist ad of 2010,” and demanded an apology from the lawmaker who approved it — incumbent senator David Vitter (R., La.), who went on to beat former representative Melancon (D., La.) by nearly 20 points.
The ad may have pushed boundaries, even by contemporary political standards. But it worked. “I remember that creating quite a stir,” recalls a Louisiana political operative. “It was powerful, and it moved the needle.”
That’s worth keeping in mind as Louisiana, a state that voted 58 percent in favor of Mitt Romney last year, prepares to determine the fate of Democratic senator Mary Landrieu. The three-term incumbent is up for reelection in 2014, and she had better be prepared to explain her support for the Gang of Eight’s controversial immigration bill.
That every single Democratic senator supported that legislation is one of the most overlooked aspects of the immigration-reform debate. Much of the conversation in Washington has focused on Republicans — will they support the Gang of Eight bill? How severe will the political consequences be if they don’t? But as far as the 2014 midterms are concerned, it’s Senate Democrats who have the most to lose politically, as political forecasters believe control of the Senate is up for grabs, in part because Democrats have tougher seats to defend.
Landrieu is one of four red-state Democrats facing reelection who backed the Gang’s bill, but many Republicans view her as the most vulnerable. In addition to her support for immigration reform, she must defend her votes in favor of gun-control legislation, the Senate budget calling for $1 trillion in higher taxes, as well as her “proud” support for Obamacare — all decisions likely to be problematic in Louisiana, which have thus puzzled her political opponents.
“Traditionally the way for a Democrat to win in Louisiana is to run as a Louisiana Democrat — you’re a conservative, working man’s type of candidate. Mary is not portraying herself as that,” says Jason Dore, executive director of the Louisiana GOP. “She is sticking hard with an ultra-liberal president, and I think that’s going to hurt her on all these big issues, immigration being the newest, most hot-button issue right now.”
The Gang of Eight bill, like Obamacare, is an “example of Mary Landrieu asking the people of Louisiana to trust the government,” he adds. “It’s one of those issues that your average person who doesn’t pay much attention to politics day-to-day, understands and gets. In Louisiana, they want our border protected, and they want it secured before any other talk about legalization occurs.”
A recent poll of Louisiana likely voters, commissioned by the immigration-restrictionist group Numbers USA, found that almost 70 percent favor implementing border-security and workplace-enforcement measures before considering legal status for illegal immigrants, and 64 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a political party that supports the same. The Gang of Eight bill would grant legal status almost immediately in exchange for promises from the administration to implement security measures in the future. According to the poll, Louisiana voters are also strongly opposed to the idea of giving work permits to illegal immigrants, by a margin of 65 percent to 32 percent.
Not surprisingly, Landrieu’s statement following the Senate bill’s passage emphasized the 20,000 new border-patrol agents, and 350 miles of additional fencing that were tacked on to the bill in a final push to boost support. (Never mind that border-patrol agents were not consulted about, did not ask for, and do not have the capacity to support the massive personnel increase.)
Landrieu may take some comfort in a Public Policy Polling survey released in June purporting to show that a majority of Louisiana voters support the Senate immigration bill. However, critics suggest that the poll, and others like it, merely parrot the Gang of Eight’s talking points — gauging support for a bill the poll says “would secure our borders, block employers from hiring undocumented immigrants and make sure that undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. with no criminal record register for legal status,” and ultimately offer citizenship “if a long list of requirements is met over more than a decade.”
In order to win a fourth term, Landrieu will need all the help she can get. Midterm elections generally favor Republicans, particularly when a Democrat is in the White House. President Obama won’t be on the ballot this time to help drive black voter turnout in New Orleans, as he did when Landrieu won in 2008. And approval from Louisiana’s Hispanic population, which makes up less than 5 percent of the state, is unlikely to boost her numbers.
Landrieu’s opponents acknowledge that she is a strong campaigner and has survived close elections before; she has deep roots in the state and belongs to a popular political family (her brother Mitch is currently mayor of New Orleans). If her support for the Gang of Eight knocks even one to two points off of her vote total, though, she could be in trouble against GOP challenger Representative Bill Cassidy, who opposes the Senate bill.
The same is true of Senators Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), and Mark Begich (Alaska) — all prime Republican targets in 2014. Supporting the Gang’s bill is unlikely to help them in their respective states, all of which voted for Romney. And if all of them are defeated, then Republicans will have almost certainly retake control of the Senate. And if that happens, Chuck Schumer’s impressive feat — getting every Democrat to support immigration reform — may look like a comprehensive mistake.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.