WASHINGTON - Want a preview of coming attractions in next year's elections? Listen to a television ad from Bob Latta's successful bid to hold on to the traditionally Republican 5th Congressional District in Ohio's special election on Tuesday.
"Broken borders, and Washington does nothing," the announcer intones. "Had enough? Bob Latta wants to get tough."
The announcer then describes Mr. Latta's "plan" this way: "No amnesty for illegal immigrants. Secure our borders. No driver's license. Cut off taxpayer-subsidized welfare benefits. And Bob Latta will fight to cut foreign aid to countries encouraging illegal immigration to America."
Mr. Latta, who held off a serious challenge from Democrat Robin Weirauch, had clearly not gotten word that the Republican Party's increasingly punitive approach to immigration is costing the GOP Hispanic votes. Perhaps he wasn't worried because people of Hispanic origin account for only 3.8 percent of Ohio's 5th District population. This, in turn, may be why Ms. Weirauch minimized her differences with Mr. Latta on immigration, preferring to focus on trade and health care.
The Ohio contest points to an important but little-noticed disconnect between how immigration is likely to play in the 2008 congressional elections and how it will affect the presidential campaign. A Latino backlash against the Republicans could hurt their nominee for president, but a backlash against illegal immigration could help Republicans in races for Congress.
Here's why: The presidential race is determined in statewide battles for electoral votes. Control of Congress is determined district by district.
Latino votes could well tip at least four Western states that voted for President Bush in 2004 to the Democrats. In New Mexico, residents of Hispanic origin account for 42.6 percent of the state's population; in Arizona, 25.3 percent; in Nevada, 19.7 percent, and in Colorado, 17.1 percent. If just Arizona and Colorado added their electoral votes to those won by John Kerry in 2004, Democrats would have an Electoral College majority.
Democrats are enjoying a Latino surge. A study released last week by the Pew Hispanic Center found that in 2007, 57 percent of registered voters who are Hispanic identified themselves as Democrats, up from 49 percent just a year ago. The proportion of Hispanics calling themselves Republicans dropped to 23 percent in 2007 from 28 percent in 2006. A 21-point Democratic advantage a year ago has grown to 34 points.
Asked which party was doing a better job dealing with illegal immigration, Hispanics gave the Democrats a 41 percent to 14 percent vote of confidence. All this augurs well for the Democrats nationwide.
Yet control of the House is determined in a limited number of highly competitive districts, and in most of those districts, the Hispanic population is very small.
Based on the results of the 2006 election, I counted 34 Democratic districts that Republicans will probably target next year; most are seats the Democrats captured from the GOP last year.
In only nine of those 34 districts is the Hispanic population more than 10 percent, including only four where it is more than 18 percent.
That leaves 25 districts where the Hispanic population is under 10 percent; in 19 of these, it is under 3 percent. These are the contests in which Republicans are likely to use the illegal immigration issue as Mr. Latta successfully has.
Of the 15 districts where the Democratic incumbent received 51 percent or less last year, 11 have Hispanic populations of less than 10 percent.
Typical of Democrats trying to hold on to seats won in 2006 is Rep. Heath Shuler from western North Carolina. Mr. Shuler defeated GOP incumbent Charles Taylor in a Republican-leaning district where Hispanics account for just 2.6 percent of the population.
It is no accident that the featured item on Mr. Shuler's congressional Web site is his sponsorship of the SAVE Act. The acronym stands for Secure America through Verification and Enforcement. As Mr. Shuler describes it, the proposal would "drastically reduce illegal immigration" through "a strict emphasis on border security, employer verification, and interior enforcement." My guess is that Mr. Shuler knows his district's priorities on immigration.
In the end, we won't solve the immigration problem until we offer a path to citizenship to the 12 million or so immigrants who are in the country illegally. A compassionate approach is also the most practical approach. But advocates of comprehensive immigration reform need to understand that in the short run, especially in the House, the politics of the issue could be very bumpy.
E.J. Dionne, Jr., is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.