The story of America’s changing political demographics can be seen in a western Colorado congressional district represented by Republican Scott Tipton.
The district’s Hispanic population has grown from 18.9 percent in 2000 to 24.3 percent today. It’s among the 100 most heavily Hispanic congressional districts, a third of those represented by Republicans.
As Washington debates changes to the nation’s immigration laws, the main hurdle will be the Republican-controlled U.S. House. Yet in that chamber, Republicans such as Tipton are increasingly representing more Hispanics, putting pressure on them to vote for making citizenship easier.
“Republicans have now decided to pay serious attention to the 2010 census,” said William Frey, a senior demographer at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “The election results have tended to focus their attention.”
In November’s election, President Barack Obama beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 44 percentage points among Hispanic voters, exit polls showed. Obama’s decisive advantage with one of the nation’s fasting growing constituencies has spurred Republican leaders to urge elected officials to engage in the immigration debate or risk becoming a minority party.
Elected in the 2010 Republican wave that gave his party the House majority, Tipton is one of the lawmakers who Hispanic activists will be watching.
In winning his seat by defeating three-term Democratic Representative John Salazar, Tipton campaigned with a stern message on immigration.
“My opponent isn’t a bad guy, but when it comes to illegal immigration, he’s just wrong,” Tipton said in one ad. “We cannot afford to be rewarding people whose first act in this nation was an illegal one.”
In an interview, Tipton, 56, said he was referring to granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. He still opposes that, and is skeptical about proposals providing a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
“When we talk about being citizens, we do have a pathway,” he said. “You apply for citizenship.”
Olivia Mendoza, executive director of the Denver-based Colorado Latino Forum, said Tipton is among the state’s members of Congress who have “an opportunity to move the dial” on immigration.
“We will be closely working with his office,” she said. “We hope there is an effort to work together on this.”
On the issue of a pathway to citizenship, Mendoza said, “I don’t think we are in the same place today” as Tipton.
The congressman said his constituents typically tell him they are more concerned about jobs and the economy, and that the nation’s borders need to be better secured.
“That being said,” he added, “we’ve got to be able to be compassionate as well, because I can point to some young people that have known no other country.”
Tipton isn’t alone among Republicans who’ll be watched by Hispanic activists and voters as the debate progresses. Two high-profile California members, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, also represent districts with Hispanic populations exceeding 25 percent.
Newly released U.S. Census data compiled by Bloomberg News show that Hispanics are changing the nation’s 435 congressional districts -- and not just in states like California and Texas, which are most often associated with their surging population.
Hispanics now represent at least a quarter of the population in about 20 percent of House districts and they’re the majority population in 33 of them, the data show.
The trend presents more political risk to Republicans than Democrats because their districts tend to be less diverse and harder-line policies are popular with their party’s base. Four in five Republican House members represent districts with Hispanic populations below the national average of 16.7 percent for all districts.
Democrats, who often represent urban areas, remain much more likely to have a larger proportion of Hispanics in their districts. When all Republican districts are averaged together, the data show Hispanics account for 11.4 percent of the population, compared to 22.9 percent for Democrats.
In the 2012 presidential election, Latino voters represented 10 percent of the electorate, up from 9 percent four years earlier. Obama captured 71 percent of that vote, the exit polling showed, while Romney won 27 percent -- down from the Republican share of 31 percent in 2008, 44 percent in 2004 and 35 percent in 2000.
Beyond the warning signs from the presidential race, the results included three Latino Democrats who defeated Republican incumbents, creating the House’s largest-ever class of Hispanic lawmakers, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. There are 25 Hispanic Democrats and eight Hispanic Republicans, according to the House press gallery.
In the House, a bipartisan group of lawmakers are crafting proposed immigration legislation. Their names haven’t been formally disclosed, although the New York Times on Feb. 3 reported on eight of those believed to be working on the effort. On the newspaper’s list were Democratic representatives Luis Gutierrez, Xavier Becerra, Zoe Lofgren, John Yarmuth, as well as Republican representatives John Carter, Mario Diaz-Balart, Sam Johnson and Raul Labrador.
Five of those eight represent districts with Hispanic populations larger than the national average of 16.7 percent. Among the Republicans, only Carter and Diaz-Balart, who represent parts of Texas and Florida, come from districts with Hispanic populations larger than that average.
Tipton’s district - which includes part of the state’s Western Slope region as well as communities on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, including Pueblo -- covers roughly half the state’s area. The district’s boundaries were only modestly changed by redistricting, so demographic comparisons between 2000 and now are mostly precise.
In the Nov. 6 election, Tipton won re-election with 53 percent of the vote. Yet in the district’s counties near the Pueblo area with the largest proportion of Hispanics, his Democratic opponent, Sal Pace, either won or was competitive.
Helping propel Tipton to victory were his margins in Mesa County, which includes Grand Junction in the far western part of his district. The county is just 13.6 percent Hispanic, and Tipton won 67 percent of the vote there.
Romney, who made multiple campaign visits to Tipton’s district, beat Obama in it, 52 percent to 46 percent.
That six-point margin was less than the one recorded in 2004 by President George W. Bush, who enjoyed more popularity among Hispanics than many Republicans. In his re-election win, Bush beat Democratic nominee John Kerry, now U.S. secretary of state, by 11 percentage points in the Colorado district.
Colorado’s status as a presidential battleground is relatively new. With the exception of 1964 and 1992, Republican presidential candidates had carried the state in every election since 1952, before Obama won it by 8.6 percentage points in 2008 after holding his party’s national nominating convention that year in Denver.
While Obama won Colorado by a smaller margin of 5 points last November, he carried the state’s Latino vote by an even wider margin than he did nationally, 75 percent to 23 percent, the exit polls show. That was a bigger margin than in 2008, when Obama won Colorado’s Latino vote by 23 percentage points. Hispanics made up 14 percent of Colorado voters in 2012.
Nationally, the proportion of Hispanics ranges from less than one percent in a West Virginia congressional district to nearly 87 percent in a California district, the data show.
Mendoza said her group wants Washington to deliver “something really comprehensive” on immigration policy, and not piece-mealed legislation.
“I think the community feels a lot of empowerment,” she said of the 2012 election. “Our vote really did matter.”