Immigrant rights advocates unveiled a campaign billboard in North Carolina on Thursday attacking Democratic Sen. Kay R. Hagan for being too strict on illegal immigrants, raising questions of how Hispanic voters will approach this year’s elections.
Though Ms. Hagan voted last year for the Senate bill that would have legalized most illegal immigrants, the North Carolina Dream Team, a group of “dreamers,” young adult immigrants who were brought to the country illegally, said the rest of her record makes her unworthy of Hispanic votes.
“A vote to keep up appearances is one thing, but those of us that have been advocating for several years now, we know better,” said Viridiana Martinez, an organizer. “Sen. Hagan is an anti-immigrant senator. She is as ‘anti-‘ as they come.”
Ms. Hagan refuted the attack and called on “all my friends in the community to understand the difference” between herself and Republican opponent Thom Tillis.
Although Ms. Hagan denies being too strict on immigration, other Democrats in Southern states are embracing tough approaches and running ads accusing their Republican opponents of being too soft on illegal immigration — suggesting just how muddied immigration politics has become.
A year ago, polling suggested that the public was shifting toward more leniency, placing legalization as a higher priority than border security. Republicans were scrambling to catch up to Democrats, most of whom embraced legalization and enjoyed electoral gains among Hispanic voters for that support.
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But a surge of illegal immigrant children this year, combined with President Obama’s promises of unilateral action granting tentative legal status to more illegal immigrants, have clouded the politics — particularly for Hispanics who see immigration as a threshold issue to earn their votes.
The Hispanic vote is getting less attention than it does in presidential election years because there aren’t many Senate races in play in states with large Hispanic populations.
One state that is getting attention is Colorado, where activists said they have registered more than 30,000 Hispanic voters this year alone.
In Georgia, the Hispanic population has surged to a point where more than 200,000 of them might be voting.
The Alliance for Citizenship, which advocates Hispanic voting, said neither party has made an investment “in genuinely engaging Latino voters,” but it predicted that Hispanics will show up at polls to punish those who prevented a legalization bill from passing in Congress — which means the GOP.
“This movement understands that this election is about demonstrating its growing political power,” the alliance said.
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Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, said he expects some Republican candidates to do well among Hispanics next month — a vindication for those who have engaged with the community.
“He or she who controls the conversation will be rewarded with the vote, and that’s what conservatives have not done well in the past,” said Mr. Garza, whose organization is trying to inject a voice for free markets into the political conversation among Hispanics. “I think what we’re seeing in this election cycle is there is a new conversation.”
Even with less attention on Hispanics this election year, Mr. Garza said, there are plenty of reasons to watch how they vote.
If Greg Abbott, a Republican, can garner 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in his quest for Texas’ governorship, it will doom Democrats’ vow of making the state competitive in the near future, Mr. Garza said. The latest polling shows Mr. Abbott nearly tied among Hispanics.
Hispanic Republican candidates are poised to add to their numbers in the House, Mr. Garza said, and Republicans are looking to flip control of statehouse chambers in New Mexico and Colorado — states with large Hispanic populations.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that 7.8 million Hispanics will vote in this year’s elections, up 1.2 million from the midterm elections in 2010.
North Carolina is one place where Hispanics are viewed as increasingly important to statewide elections, which is why Ms. Hagan’s immigration record is under scrutiny.
Ms. Martinez, the organizer for the team that posted the billboard attacks, said she wouldn’t necessarily tell voters to back Mr. Tillis, but she wants them to know Ms. Hagan’s background, which includes supporting a state law that blocks illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses and includes a vote this year against continuing Mr. Obama’s nondeportation policy for dreamers.
“Hagan has a record of being anti-immigrant. Tillis doesn’t have anything,” she said. “Now I’m not saying that Tillis, we fully trust Tillis — by no means. I think any person that’s elected needs to be held accountable.”
Ms. Martinez said she knows many voters from mixed-status families — with at least one member in the country without authorization — who probably will sit out the Senate election.
At a campaign stop Thursday, Ms. Hagan said her record is better than Mr. Tillis’. She pointed to her vote last year in favor of the Senate immigration bill, written by the bipartisan Gang of Eight, which would have granted eventual citizenship rights to most illegal immigrants, boosted legal immigration and spent tens of millions of dollars hiring more Border Patrol agents and building more fencing.
“I have supported a common-sense bipartisan immigration bill. I think that’s what we need,” Ms. Hagan told reporters.
She accused Mr. Tillis of talking only about border security, which she said doesn’t solve the problem.
While Ms. Hagan defended her vote, some Democratic candidates have adopted more combative approaches. In Louisiana, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu is touting her support for more border fencing. In Kentucky, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes attacked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for voting for the 1986 amnesty, which legalized 3 million immigrants.
Ms. Grimes says in her ad that she has “never supported amnesty or benefits for illegal immigrants, and I never will.”
Mr. Garza said Hispanic voters will judge Ms. Grimes and Ms. Landrieu as political opportunists.
“What we’re seeing is that Latinos are back in the crossroads and beginning to distance themselves from the Democratic brand because their policies don’t work and they’re not credible,” he said.
• S.A. Miller, reporting from Durham, North Carolina, contributed to this article.