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The gutsy decision that saved Harry Reid's career and made him a hero to Latinos

In September 2010, in the toughest reelection campaign of his career, then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did something his own polling told him not to do. He decided to bring the DREAM Act, allowing young unauthorized immigrants to get eventual citizenship, up for a vote in the Senate, and — after its failure — promised to bring it up again.

It paid off tremendously. Reid surprised everyone by winning reelection by a decent margin over Republican challenger Sharron Angle, and he credited his victory to Latino turnout. The race changed the conventional wisdom about immigration politics — turning Democrats from a party ambivalent about the issue out of fear of losing white voters to one willing to embrace it for the purpose of winning Latino votes.

But it's easy to forget just how big the shift was — and how surprising Reid's decision was at the time.

"Even though Democrats were in power, Latinos weren't being defended"

Latinos weren't expected to turn out to vote in 2010. Sure, they'd made a strong showing to elect Barack Obama in 2008, but that was a presidential election, not a midterm one. And enthusiasm around Obama had dissipated quickly after the president not only failed to introduce the immigration-reform bill he promised but then deported 400,000 immigrants a year.

At the beginning of September, only 41 percent of Latinos said they were "very enthusiastic" about voting, according to pollster Latino Decisions. And over 50 percent of Latino voters said they were less excited about the Democratic Party than they were when Obama was elected.

That lack of enthusiasm extended to Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was locked in a tough reelection battle with Sharron Angle.

Democratic strategist Jose Parra, who ran Latino communications for Reid's campaign, remembers that their office had to work with constituents closely in the aftermath of a raid on a Phoenix bus stop that had been caught by reporters and broadcast on Telemundo: "They recorded, on video, moms, screaming, being put into patrol cars with CBP (Customs and Border Protection) markings on it."

"The Latino community felt that even though Democrats were in power, they weren't being defended," Parra says.

DREAMer arrested Mark Abramson/the Washington Post via Getty

A protester calling on the Senate to pass the DREAM Act is arrested outside a Senate building. (Mark Abramson/the Washington Post via Getty)

Reid had been paying attention to the growing Latino vote in Nevada for some time. According to Parra, Reid used to spend Christmas Eve delivering gifts to Latino families with a Las Vegas–area Spanish newspaper. (Parra says that when other Democrats would ask Reid, "Why are you wasting your time? Even if they're citizens, they don't vote," Reid replied, "Just you wait.")

The campaign knew they would need high Latino turnout to beat Angle. And they knew it would be hard. For one thing, many Latinos had moved to Nevada from other states during the mid-2000s construction boom and didn't know Reid at all. Also, Latinos were upset with the president over deportations — crystallized by the Phoenix raid broadcast on Telemundo — and with both parties in the Senate, neither of which had done anything on immigration reform.

Reid himself was the target of some of that anger. In summer 2010, a group of young activists staged a sit-in in Reid's DC office, demanding that he bring up the DREAM Act.

But "to those of us looking from the outside," says Democratic strategist Gabriela Domenzain, "it wasn't obvious whether Reid was going to fight back [against Angle] by leaning in."

"Do not touch the DREAM Act with a ten-foot pole"

At the time, the conventional wisdom among Democrats was that the party should only focus on Latino voters to the extent that they didn't risk alienating white independents.

The notion that immigration was the "third rail of American politics" still ruled. Rahm Emanuel had said that when he was chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2007, and many Democrats still remembered it when Rahm was White House Chief of Staff in 2010.

So the cost-benefit analysis in Nevada, Parra says, was: "Can I get 80 to 90 percent of Latinos to vote for Reid and turn out at presidential levels, without alienating white independents?"

That analysis led Reid advisers to warn the senator, "'Do not touch the DREAM Act with a ten-foot pole,'" Parra recalls. "'You're going to lose white independents. That's what the polling shows. You will lose white independents and the election.'"

That's not what Reid did.

harry reid manny pacquiao

Harry Reid and boxer Manny Pacquiao at a Get Out the Vote rally in 2010. (David Becker/Getty)

In Parra's recollection: "His words to me, back then, and to other staffers, were: 'You know what? The people who are going to vote against me are going to vote against me. And the people who are going to vote for me, I need to give them a reason to vote for me.'"

For a while, it looked like Reid had made a tremendous blunder. "Our tracking poll," says Parra, "actually showed Reid bleeding support" after he announced he was going to call a vote on the DREAM Act. "And people were wringing their hands in the campaign office because this decision was probably a big blunder." Other Reid staffers would say to Parra, "This could cost us the election."

The tracking polls, of course, were built on the assumption that Latinos wouldn't turn out to vote in high numbers. That's also the assumption Angle's campaign made. The day after Reid committed to the DREAM Act, she released the first of a series of ads using stock footage of Latinos sneaking past fences to attack Reid on immigration. One ad called Harry Reid "the best friend an illegal ever had." Another asked, "What does Harry Reid have against you?" — assuming that the "you" in question was, of course, white.

In an October Wall Street Journal article, one Republican strategist working in Nevada explained Angle's rationale when it came to Latinos: "If they show up they could swing the election. But will they actually show up at the ballot?"

Latinos "could have just sat out in this election," Domenzain says, "because they were so disempowered by the fact that the DREAM Act didn't pass in the Senate and that they have this person who is just violent to the community. But instead, and this is the brilliance of the Reid campaign, they turned that disappointment into voter mobilization. Into, 'We know you're disappointed, but we have to keep our champion in the Senate.' And they did it in a way that nobody had ever done before."

"Not only did he push hard for a vote in the Senate, but he incorporated the Dream Act as an issue in his campaign outreach," says pollster Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions. "He really leaned in on the issue."

"The ground operation, the Spanish-language media operation," says Domenzain. "It became very clear that he was going to bank on his immigration position to win the election. And in some ways, this was the first time this had been done."

"If you do something for us, people will come out"

Gaby Pacheco, an activist who'd been organizing for the DREAM Act, was watching the Reid-Angle race from her home in Miami. "The whole campaign was about immigration and Latinos. There was no doubt about that," she says. "At least for me, I was just sitting there in Miami thinking, 'I cannot just sit here knowing that I have the ability to do something.'"

She paid her own way to Nevada for two weeks of work helping get out the vote for Reid.

high school mariachi band

A high school mariachi band practices for an appearance at a 2010 Harry Reid campaign rally. (Bill Clark/Roll Call via Getty)

She saw that Angle's attacks on immigrants, partly in response to Reid's embrace of the DREAM Act, were a big motivating factor for many of the voters she encountered: "There were a lot of third- and fourth-generation Mexican Americans who were just so afraid of her."

But the reason the voter outreach effort was so strong was because people had been galvanized by Reid's efforts with DREAM. "The young people, and the folks like myself that were hoping for the DREAM Act, were motivated to go out and get people registered and be really involved in the campaign. There was just tons of young people I saw in the campaign."

Polls weren't looking good. All eight public polls taken in the last 20 days of the campaign gave Angle a lead of between 1 and 4 percentage points. But those polls substantially underestimated Latino enthusiasm for Reid.

The exit polls showed that Latinos made up 15 percent of the electorate in Nevada — comparable to their showing in 2008. And they voted overwhelmingly for Reid. (In fact, even the exit polls may have underestimated just how overwhelmingly; the national exit poll showed 30 percent of Latinos voting for Angle, while Latino Decisions' polling, conducted bilingually, showed it was closer to 10 percent.)

"Latino enthusiasm and support was in question," Latino Decisions' Barreto says, summing up the race. "But a key turning point was Harry Reid's strong push to pass the DREAM Act."

As Parra put it, "The poll that matters at the end of the day showed that Reid's gut and conviction was right."

Domenzain remembers watching Univision's election night returns and hearing anchor Maria Elena Salinas announce the breaking news that Latinos had won Harry Reid his campaign. "It was one of those moments where, like, you're pinching yourself," she says. "Because you're like, 'Is everybody else seeing what we're seeing?'"

They definitely were. The question is how much they've taken it to heart. Some Democrats have definitely taken notice. According to Parra, Obama for America explicitly modeled its 2012 Latino outreach effort on Reid's Nevada efforts in 2010.

But Domenzain points to Senator Mark Udall's failure to win reelection in Colorado in 2014: "Given that this was the lesson [from 2010] — that even in an off year they raised the Latino vote — it's so bad and so ironic that four years later a Democratic senator like a Udall would reject that strategy."

For immigration activists like Pacheco, however, it was absolutely a turning point. Reid's reelection gave them an example to point to when pressuring other Democratic politicians — including President Obama — to lean in on immigration.

"We were able to say, 'If you do something for us, like Harry Reid did in 2010, people will come out,'" she says. "They will feel engaged. They will feel they have someone who believes in them and is deserving of their vote."