How Will Latino Votes Influence Colorado's Senate Battle?

Image: Mark Udall, Cory Gardner, Brandon Rittiman
FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2014, file photo incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and his opponent U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., right, watching a coin flip by moderator Brandon Rittiman to see who gets first question during their final pre-election televised debate at 9News in Denver. Colorado in the only state among the dozen or so in play this year with both a competitive Senate race and a sizable population of Hispanic voters. And Yuma, Gardner's hometown, is Colorado in a microcosm. The town, like the state, has been transformed by Latin American immigrants who have arrived to open businesses, labor in fields and hog farms, and take seats in public school classrooms. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)Brennan Linsley / AP

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In this year’s midterms, any discussion of the Latino vote has come back to Colorado, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is in a tight race with Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner.

This is the state where Latinos make up 14 percent of the eligible voters, the largest proportion in all of the competitive U.S. Senate races this election year.

A tight race with a substantial Latino vote has meant the community has gotten the sort of attention Latino activists and strategists clamor for; they say it is needed in more states.

Udall, who has championed immigration reform and criticized Obama’s postponement of executive action, was shown to have support from 55 percent of registered Latino voters in a poll conducted by Latino Decisions for the National Council of La Raza Action Fund, NCLR's political arm.

Just 14 percent of Latinos favored Gardner, but 31 percent was undecided in late September, when the poll was done. The poll surveyed 400 occasional Latino voters, using bilingual interviewers and reaching them by landline, cell and a web panel. The margin of error was 4.9 percent.

THORNTON, CO - OCTOBER 25: Ruben Gallego of Phoenix, Arizona holds a Latinos for Udall sign at a canvass kickoff campaign event on October 25, 2014 in Thornton, Colorado.. Udall is seeking reelection as one of Colorado's two senators and faces Republican challenger Cory Gardner in a tight race for the seat. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)Marc Piscotty / Getty Images

During the campaign, Gardner, a former Democrat, has been put on the defensive over his co-sponsorship of a federal bill titled the Life At Conception Act. Colorado is considering a similar "personhood" measure but Gardner has said he opposes it and has said his co-sponsorship of the federal bill was meant only to state his support for life.

Gardner also has sought to neutralize the immigration issue in the campaign, a clear acknowledgement that the Latino vote is a player in this race.

He had previously said he supports the Senate bipartisan immigration bill, supported allowing children of immigrants to join the military and supported allowing them to stay in the U.S. He was one of 11 Republicans to vote against a late-session Republican measure to end deportation deferrals for DREAMers, according to PolitiFact.

But immigration groups such as America’s Voice have been critical of Gardner’s pre-campaign immigration record, which included support for a measure sponsored by immigration restrictionist GOP Rep. Steve King to defund the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and bills that sought to strip President Barack Obama of executive powers.

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Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has high Latino membership, has been running ads in English and Spanish against Gardner on immigration, education and workers wages, as part of a $1 million ad campaign.

Meanwhile, Udall has had to fend off Gardner’s portrayal of him as part of a family that is a political dynasty and an ally of President Barack Obama who votes with the president 99 percent of the time.

Republican Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, has appeared in Spanish-language ads paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an immigration reform supporter, in support of Gardner, according to The Hill.

Cory Gardner, Republican U.S. Senate candidate, talks to a reporter at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver event in Denver October 24, 2014. What was once a "fly-over" Senate race in Colorado has become one of the nation's most closely watched contests, with Gardner, a young Republican congressman who is leaving a safe seat in the U.S. House fiercely attacking Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)RICK WILKING / Reuters

The Colorado Latinos that Mi Familia Vota is meeting as it works to register and turn out voters are favoring Udall, said Ben Monterroso, executive director of the organization.

Monterroso said the group is seeing about 60 percent of the low-propensity voters they’re connecting with say they support Udall, while about 28 percent say they support Gardner. The rest are undecided, which Monterroso said is a pretty large share for this late in the elections.

Monterroso was among leaders of Latino groups who acknowledged having a tougher job this year registering Latino voters because of Obama’s decision to postpone executive action. But Monterroso said his group has managed to register 8,500 people, higher than the 7,500 registered in 2012 when Latinos had a record turnout that helped Obama carry the state.

“The people are interested in participating. We find a lot of people don’t have all the facts,” Monterroso said. “I think the Latino community will respond again, higher than the pollsters think and than the last midterm.”

He said there are a lot of things happening outside the Senate race that might help drive up interest, including a Spanish language debate on Thursday in the hotly contested Congressional District 6 race between Republican Rep. Mike Coffman and Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff . The district is about 20 percent Hispanic.

Another factor is Colorado’s new voter law which provides a mail-in ballot to every registered voter and also allows same-day registration through Election Day.