Everyone assumes that Republicans will easily hold the House in November. The dominant storyline among the chattering classes centers instead on the possibility that Republicans could seize control of the Senate from Democrats. But the rapidly escalating immigration face-off between President Barack Obama and House Republicans raises the possibility that Democrats could win back the House — even if Republicans do take the Senate
How is that possible? It's simple: There are more competitive House races than Senate races in areas with significant Latino populations.
Last year, David Damore, a polling analyst for the firm Latino Decisions, found that there are 44 congressional districts with Republican incumbents that could be ousted if their Latino constituents flex their electoral muscle. "This includes districts where the Latino voting-age population exceeds the 2012 margin of victory or swing districts won in 2012 by President Obama and the House Republican candidate that also have notable Latino populations," he wrote.
Now of course, not all of the 44 districts where Latinos can theoretically play a decisive role are considered competitive today. Damore recently lamented that Democrats failed to recruit strong challengers across the board. Professional congressional handicappers Stu Rothenberg, Charlie Cook, and Larry Sabato suggest that around 19 of these districts remain in play, including 16 Republicans running for re-election and three other seats where the Republican incumbent won't be on the ballot.
That may not seem like a lot for a body with 435 representatives. But Democrats only need to flip 17 seats to take over the House. While most observers see that as a bridge too far for Democrats this year, the political terrain in these Latino-strong districts may look different in the fall. Just as we head into the midterms' final two-month sprint, Obama will likely have followed through on this week's pledge to use executive orders to help keep immigrant families together in America.
Obama can't fix the entire immigration system by fiat. He can't unilaterally bestow citizenship on the undocumented. He can't even ensure his executive orders will stay on the books once he vacates the Oval Office in 2017. There will still be a need for Congress to act. And immigration advocates may well turn all their fire on obstructionist House Republicans once Obama has shown he has done all he can without them.
Suddenly, the midterms might be all about immigration. Obama would be viewed by Latinos as the one guy trying to stick up for them, intransigent Republicans be damned. And that's big trouble for the GOP.
Obviously, a Democratic takeover of the House would remain a long shot. This sort of thing almost never happens in a two-term president's sixth year. And Democrats would effectively have to run the table, winning nearly all of the Latino-strong districts, and maybe picking off a few other Republicans facing tough races, while avoiding losses in the several competitive races involving Democratic incumbents. That would be neither easy nor likely. But it is possible.
Complicating matters for Democrats: Republicans representing increasingly influential Latino constituencies have been trying to keep the immigration monkey off their backs. Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, Californians with particularly robust Latino constituencies, have gone as far as supporting Democratic legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Others, like Nevada's Rep. Joe Heck, support narrower legislation that would allow citizenship for undocumented children. And some, like freshman Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski, who barely won her seat in 2012, simply avoid taking firm positions. Democrats could have difficulty landing blows on such slippery targets.
But all of these Republicans share one big vulnerability: refusal to join Democrats in signing a "discharge petition" that would have forced a House floor vote on the Senate-approved comprehensive immigration bill. That gives Democratic challengers a hammer to bludgeon Republicans who attempt to obfuscate their role in obstructing reform. Democrats can make a clear and legitimate case to voters that reform can only happen if the GOP incumbent is tossed.
Furthermore, as The New Republic's Sasha Issenberg reported earlier in the year, Democratic campaign operatives have been busy adapting their modern get-out-the-vote technologies and field operations to replicate their 2012 success and boost turnout among unlikely voters in 2014. Issenberg sums up the challenge: "While Latinos' total presidential votes tripled from 1988 to 2012, their midterm participation has declined by about seven points." That may be changing, and Democrats toiling in the House campaign trenches may now have the infrastructure necessary to really turn out the midterm vote.
Immigration will probably have less of an impact in Senate races. Every competitive 2014 Senate race, with the exception of Colorado, is in a state where the Latino eligible voter population is less than five percent. Of course, in any nail-biter race, even a constituency of three percent can play an outsized role. But with so many of these races occurring in red states, embattled Senate Democrats will likely want to avoid the potential for right-wing anti-immigrant backlash. That explains why the Senate Democrats' "Fair Shot" 2014 agenda touts raising the minimum wage, promoting equal pay, investing in manufacturing jobs, and protecting Medicare — but nothing about immigration.
In other words, the House Democratic campaign strategy and the Senate Democratic campaign strategy may run along separate tracks, one driving immigration, the other pushing the economy. One strategy could work while the other flops. That creates the possibility, however unlikely, for something completely unprecedented: a midterm election where Democrats and Republicans trade control of each congressional branch.