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Democrats Losing Favor with Hispanics

Democrats Losing Favor With Hispanics

The victory of three Republican Hispanics in last year’s election is a warning sign for Democrats. Political activists and campaign strategists say Democrats need to do more to bolster their Hispanic candidates.

LOS ANGELES & SANTA FE, NM (By Mark Z. Barabak, LAT) June 17, 2011 ― Early this year, Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez made history. He became Nevada’s first Hispanic governor. In New Mexico, she became the country’s first Hispanic governor.

Just as striking as their breakthrough is their party affiliation: Both are Republicans.

For many in the GOP, the twin victories last November, along with the election of Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida, marked an important step in efforts to mend the party’s frayed ties with Hispanic voters, which have suffered over the last several years of hard-line talk on immigration.

For Democrats, the election of the three was something else: a warning sign at a time when Hispanic support has grown increasingly vital to the party’s success, especially in the battleground states of the Rocky Mountains and desert Southwest.

Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Michael Bennet of Colorado each withstood the 2010 Republican wave thanks in good part to Hispanic support. President Obama is counting on strong Hispanic turnout to hold on to Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico — states he won in the last White House race — and to expand the 2012 competition to Arizona and, maybe, Texas and Georgia.

“The Republicans, by electing three national Hispanic leaders, have really challenged the Democratic Party,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, until recently one of the highest-ranking Hispanic Democrats in the country.

“Democrats have to recruit more Hispanic candidates and they have to start siding with Hispanics on redistricting and other issues,” Richardson said, “because many Hispanics perceive the party doesn’t care enough about electing more Hispanic officials.”

Richardson’s concerns were echoed by Hispanic lawmakers, political activists and campaign strategists across the country. To them, the Democratic Party — while benefitting from a surge in Hispanic votes — has, in particular, not done enough to help Hispanic candidates move from city council, legislative and congressional seats to the party’s highest elected offices.

Money is one reason. Many Hispanics represent less affluent, more geographically concentrated areas that fail to provide the fundraising base white politicians have. Boosting Hispanic candidates requires patience and a grooming process Democrats have not often undertaken, critics say, pointing to Senate races next year in three key states as an example.

In Nevada and Arizona, they note, there is no credible Hispanic Democrat running. In New Mexico, state Auditor Hector Balderas is scrambling for traction in a primary against Rep. Martin Heinrich, who started the race as the perceived favorite of the party establishment.

“The Democrats really haven’t shown a willingness or any creativity in identifying Hispanic talent and moving it forward,” said Margaret Montoya, a University of New Mexico administrator and a Balderas supporter. “Martin Heinrich is a reliable progressive vote. Hector is a vote, a voice and a face of the future.”

Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, said the party recognized the importance of recruiting and supporting Hispanic candidates and was staying neutral in New Mexico’s primary after sending early signals in favor of Heinrich.

He pointed out the party helped recruit Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to run for Senate in Texas in 2012, though he is very much an underdog, given the state’s Republican leanings.

The discontent among Hispanics is a matter of degree.

The overwhelming majority of elected Hispanics belong to the Democratic Party, and most Hispanic voters tend to favor Democrats over Republicans up and down the ballot. Even as they won their governor races, Sandoval and Martinez failed to capture a majority of the Hispanic vote in their states. Any GOP gains among Hispanics are likely to narrow the gap, not reverse it.

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And even as the recent election results buoy Republicans, factions within the party continue to fight over immigration, pitting supporters of an enforcement-only approach against those who want to combine strict laws with a pathway to citizenship — as President George W. Bush favored — for millions who are living illegally in the country but paying taxes and keeping out of trouble.

Still, at the very least, the election of high-profile Hispanic Republicans in three key states gives the GOP an opportunity to move away from the more heated rhetoric of the national party, a first step toward boosting support among Hispanics and possibly tipping those states in 2012.

“Nothing sells the message Hispanics are welcome and wanted more readily than having Hispanics on the ticket,” said former New Mexico GOP Chairman Harvey Yates, who played a major role in Martinez’s success.

Martinez, the former county prosecutor, ran to the right of her GOP opponent in the primary, accusing him of supporting “amnesty” by backing Bush’s immigration plan. But in the general election, Martinez essentially dropped that issue, calling instead for repeal of the state law that allows illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. That position was favored by 80% of voters including, significantly, a majority of the state’s Hispanics.

“She didn’t soften her stand,” said Brian Sanderoff, an Albuquerque pollster. “She just chose to refocus her emphasis.”

Martinez won nearly 40% of the Hispanic vote, according to Sanderoff’s research, but even more important, she outperformed the rest of the Republican ticket in the state’s heavily Hispanic areas, drawing considerable crossover support from Democrats and independents. “That shows with the right Republican candidates there is the potential to expand the party base and win over Hispanics,” Sanderoff said.

Some frustrated Democrats note New Mexico, with a Hispanic population now exceeding 50%, has not had a Hispanic senator in more than 40 years.

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