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Why Immigration Talk in Senate Races Took a Hard Right

Image: English-Spanish Signs Front Election Center In Texas
AUSTIN, TX - APRIL 28: A bilingual sign stands outside a polling center at public library ahead of local elections on April 28, 2013 in Austin, Texas. Early voting was due to begin Monday ahead of May 11 statewide county elections. The Democratic and Republican parties are vying for the Latino vote nationwide following President Obama's landslide victory among Hispanic voters in the 2012 election. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)Getty Images

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If high-profile Senate candidates are talking about immigration at all this cycle, it usually involves foreboding music or warnings of criminals, terrorists or even Ebola coming over the nation’s Southern border.

That’s far from the tone Republican sages took earlier this year, as a comprehensive immigration bill faltered in the United States House and strategists pronounced that the Republican Party’s spiking of the reform could mean its demise as a political party.

But a new number from the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project sheds some light on why most GOP candidates have taken such a hard right turn on immigration, despite widespread disapproval of the party from Latinos.

According to Pew researchers, only an average of 4.7 percent of eligible voters are Latino in the eight states with the most competitive Senate races. That’s compared to a national average of 10.7 percent.

In fact, the only competitive Senate race state where the Latino population of eligible voters exceeds the national average is in Colorado, where Republican candidate Cory Gardner has been pushed to moderate some of his hardline stances on immigration.

But in a state like Kentucky, Arkansas or Louisiana, where the Latinos don’t even make up three percent of the eligible voting population, it’s no surprise that support for the most stringent immigration laws is the political norm -- sometimes from both candidates.

Case in point: Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who sounded a note from the GOP playbook when she accused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of supporting “amnesty” in an ad. That spot won the derision of liberal groups, who called it “offensive” and pushed her to pull it off the air.

The percentage of Kentucky’s eligible voting population that’s Latino? Just 1.6 percent.

In New Hampshire, Republican candidate Scott Brown has even suggested that Ebola could enter the country through the "porous" border. (The percentage of eligible voters who are Latino isn't available in the Pew data, but Census data shows that Latinos make up only about three percent of the state's total population.)

In Iowa, where the Latino population of eligible voters is about 2.7 percent, GOP candidate Joni Ernst frequently voices opposition to "amnesty" and advocates for stricter border security. But she also surprised observers this week, when she said she would not vote to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that help young undocumented immigrants.

Asked about how different candidates around the country are addressing the immigration issue, the National Republican Senatorial Committee's Rob Collins said that Republicans echo what their constituents want.

“Immigration works differently in all these states, and Brown’s position might not be the same as what Ernst is saying, but both positions mirrors where their voters are,” he said.

NBC's Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this story.

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