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On brown restrictionism and the midterm

Governor-elect Brian Sandoval of Nevada shakes hands with a supporter on election night. November 2, 2010
Governor-elect Brian Sandoval of Nevada shakes hands with a supporter on election night. November 2, 2010
Photo by Robyn Beck/Getty Images

This week's midterm election gave us much food for thought regarding the role of minorities in the outcome, and among the more interesting items on the menu has been victories of several minority Republican candidates in state and national elections.

While Latino voters helped net key victories for Democrats in the West, namely for Jerry Brown in the California governor's race and for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, the GOP pitched a slew of ethnic candidates who won, in some cases without much Latino support. Among them are New Mexico governor-elect Susana Martinez, Nevada governor-elect Brian Sandoval and Florida U.S. Senate winner Marco Rubio, as well as South Carolina governor-elect Nikki Haley, who is Indian-American.

What do these winners have in common? In a post on, Shikha Dalmia wrote about a common thread that binds them: a restrictionist stance on immigration. From the piece:

Even though New Mexico has a history of welcoming Mexican immigrants, Martinez was so unrelenting in her opposition to them that she even forced her (white) Democratic opponent to harden her stance. She opposed “amnesty” for undocumented aliens, pledged to revoke their driver’s licenses and ban them from college scholarships. And she endorsed Arizona’s “your papers please” law.

Sandoval, a Tea Party darling, wasn’t quite as unflinching as Martinez, but he too ultimately praised the Arizona law and adopted a far harsher stance toward Hispanic immigrants.

Rubio and Haley embraced similar positions during their campaigns, also endorsing Arizona's SB 1070. Dalmia, a Forbes columnist and senior analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, went on to write:
The lesson for immigration advocates in all this is that hostility to immigration does not stem solely from xenophobia that shifting demographics will someday cure. It is that anti-immigration sentiment is driven by economic and other fears that have to be addressed anew for every generation regardless of its ethnic make-up.

It's an interesting take. In other periods of United States history when restrictionist attitudes have reigned, some of those pushing hardest to close the door on new immigrants - for example, in the years leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 - were descendants of earlier immigrants or immigrants themselves.

Then as now, as Dalmia points out, economic fears played a part. But so did racial fears, as the ethncity-based restrictions put in place then - and extended in 1917 - only applied to Asians.

What's most interesting about the recent ethnic GOP victories, particularly those of the three Latino winners, is the strategic embrace of candidates with an immigrant background by a party that has repeatedly struck out with Latino voters due to party leaders' hard stance on immigration issues. Recent immigrant-bashing ads by some GOP candidates (i.e. Sharron Angle's "The Wave" spot in Nevada) haven't helped, only fueling the perception of anti-immigrant bias.

Introducing brown candidates doesn't necessarily translate into winning brown votes: According to the pollsters at Latino Decisions, Martinez won only 38 percent of New Mexico's Latino vote. Sandoval did worse in Nevada, capturing only 15 percent. Only Rubio, a Cuban-American, did well with Latino voters in Florida, winning 62 percent of their votes. But then, it's Florida.

However, the tough-on-immigration message that these winning candidates put forth, some shifting farther to the right on immigration as their campaigns progressed, did translate into enough general votes to elect them to office, in spite of - or perhaps because of - the fact that the message is coming from descendants of immigrants. When those campaigning for tougher immigration policies are brown, even if the bulk of their supporters are not, the argument that anti-immigrant sentiment is what lies at the heart of such efforts in Congress and at the state level becomes a more difficult one to win. Smart strategy? Maybe.