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Colorado Voters Cite Immigration As A Hot Button Issue

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

If you want to experience where voting really counts these midterm elections, go to Colorado. It's the scene of another very close Senate race, one of several that may decide control of that chamber. That's why Steve Inskeep traveled to the flatlands around Denver to knock on voters' doors. On Friday, Steve visited a struggling mom who's on disability, and a prosperous business owner. Now we meet two more voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This door was in Belmar on a tree-lined street near a shopping mall. It's in Lakewood, one of the Denver suburbs where the campaigns are fighting for votes.

Hi. How are you, sir? We're reporters with NPR, National Public Radio.

VERN BAUMER: Yeah. Hannah, come in here.

INSKEEP: Oh, sorry about that.

The man had to summon back a dog who slipped out as he opened his door.

INSKEEP: My name's Steve by the way.

BAUMER: Hi, I'm Vern.

INSKEEP: Vern Baumer, white-haired, white-bearded, 77 years old. We chatted outside on the porch so we wouldn't disturb the child who peeked out from behind him.

BAUMER: This is my great-great-granddaughter.

INSKEEP: Oh, wow, that's great.

BAUMER: I got 12 grandkids and 22 great grandkids and one great-great-granddaughter.

INSKEEP: That is amazing.

BAUMER: We're going to take over the world. (Laughter).

INSKEEP: He says he's a semi-retired machinist and also a jazz musician.

BAUMER: Anyway, what kind of questions are you going to ask?

INSKEEP: So apparently day care is a major political issue for you then?

BAUMER: (Laugher) Well, it is a concern. It's not my biggest concern, but...

INSKEEP: What is your biggest concern?

BAUMER: Immigrants, illegal immigrants. I think they're going to hurt this country bad. They already have frankly.

INSKEEP: Do you see that in some way?

BAUMER: Right here we're full of Mexicans in this neighborhood.

INSKEEP: He told a story about an extended family who crowded a nearby house for a time. Very nice people, he said, working jobs, but he was not sure if they were here legally.

BAUMER: What I worry about is my grandkids. You know, it's not going to bother me, but my grandkids it's going to bother them.

Yes? Oh, what you got there?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I don't know.

BAUMER: OK, OK, go back in and watch Mickey. Sorry about that. (Laughter) She's a cutie.

INSKEEP: That's OK.

If immigration isn't dealt with in some way, how would it hurt the country?

BAUMER: How would it hurt it?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

BAUMER: Well, I think it'll plain dumb down the country. It'll get to the point where we're a Third World country. It's that simple, I think. Somebody up in Washington is trying to get this country to be a Third World country. We're not going to talk about who it is, but he's in high position, and it starts with a P. (Laughter).

INSKEEP: His job search with a P?

BAUMER: Yes.

INSKEEP: And why would immigrants who come here illegally dumb down the country? Because they'd be less educated, or do you mean in some other way?

BAUMER: Less educated, more people - more people, less wages and less jobs, too. That hurts this country more than anything, I think.

INSKEEP: Vern Baumer says he already mailed in his ballot. He had a clear choice on immigration. Democratic Senator Mark Udall voted for a Senate immigration bill. That bipartisan plan included border security measures and an eventual path to citizenship for people who are here without documents.

Who'd you vote for?

BAUMER: Who'd I vote for?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

BAUMER: Who do you think I voted for? (Laughter) I'm a Republican. Who do you think I voted for? (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Did you vote for Cory Gardner?

BAUMER: Yes.

INSKEEP: That's the Republican candidate for Senate. He's a current member of the House of Representatives, which blocked that Senate immigration bill. Before we said goodbye to Vern Baumer and his great-great-granddaughter, we remembered one other thing he'd said - that he was a musician.

BAUMER: Oh, I'm a clarinetist.

INSKEEP: Do you perform, like, on stage somewhere?

BAUMER: Oh, yeah. A matter of fact, I've got a CD if you want it.

INSKEEP: We did.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

INSKEEP: In a midterm election when turnout is typically low, each party depends on its core supporters. Republicans can feel confident of supporters like Vern Baumer. The decisive question may be whether core Democrats vote in the same numbers. Colorado is changing in ways that should give Democrats an edge. Democratic-leaning Latino and other populations are growing, as we saw when we visited another Denver suburb; it's Aurora, Colorado. A modest strip mall near Havana Street is home to a Korean barbecue and a Middle Eastern grocery with Arabic script on the window and, next to an Irish pub, a Sudanese cafe where we stopped for lunch.

SAMY WAHABREBI: This is you guys' first time here?

INSKEEP: First time here. Educate me a little bit, what's on the menu?

WAHABREBI: So we have fava beans.

INSKEEP: The menu is both Sudanese and Egyptian, dishes like ful and khoshary. The server is Samy Wahabrebi. He's a native of Sudan, now a U.S. citizen. We saw customers who spoke several languages and who tune to the television to RT, the Russian government's news network.

WAHABREBI: You came in, it's RT. Usually it's, like, Sudan TV or ETV from Ethiopia. Or believe me I think it switches all day every day.

INSKEEP: Samy is 26. His aunt owns the restaurant. They're small-business people. Samy work the cash register and also just got a real estate license.

WAHABREBI: America's the land of the free, home of the brave.

INSKEEP: A place, he says, where newcomers deserve a chance.

WAHABREBI: I mean, I'm sure your ancestors are Irish or something like that - something, you know, everyone's mixed is what I'm saying.

INSKEEP: What do you think about illegal immigration?

WAHABREBI: I personally don't know anybody in that kind of situation or in that problem, but, I mean, more power to them.

INSKEEP: Meaning you'd like them to be able to regularize and stay?

WAHABREBI: Really just find a chance, an opportunity. I mean, they risk their lives coming here. So it's like - I don't know.

INSKEEP: That makes him sound like a sure supporter of Democratic Senator Udall, but listen carefully. That last part where he said I don't know. Here's what he said next.

WAHABREBI: I'm real mixed of feelings about this because I am an immigrant myself. And so, you know, I understand people in Mexico don't have any opportunities or the chance they do here, but there is a proper way to, you know, go about things.

INSKEEP: His views are complicated. And it turns out, the Republican challenger in the Senate race has complicated his position a bit. Cory Gardner has not backed a path to citizenship, but he has kept his distance from the more strident members of his party. Our Sudanese restaurant worker was not yet familiar with the difference between the two candidates. He has seen endless campaign ads, but few on immigration. He's really certain of only one political issue. He's vaguely disappointed with a politician he supported back in 2008.

Who'd you vote for?

WAHABREBI: Who was it? Obama actually. Yeah. That was the first election, right? Yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: Did you vote for the president again in 2012?

WAHABREBI: I'll keep that one to myself. Is that OK? Can I just hold that to myself?

INSKEEP: It's just a difference of opinion, this registered Democrat adds of President Obama. He'd been expecting greater progress these last six years. Instead, he says, Republicans in Congress often blocked the president. This is the feeling of disappointment that weighs on some Democratic voters as they consider their choices.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

MONTAGNE: And that's our colleague Steve Inskeep. We've been listening to Colorado voters as the election nears. Elsewhere in today's program, we hear voices from a conservative but changing Colorado farm town. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.