More Hispanic voters are Democrats, but the better Hispanic candidates are Republicans.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 23 2010 5:01 PM

Adios, Democrats

More Hispanic voters are Democrats, but the better Hispanic candidates are Republicans.

Susana Martinez. Click image to expand.
Susana Martinez 

For Democrats, the most frightening candidate of 2010 may well be Susana Martinez, the Republican nominee for governor in New Mexico. If she wins in November, she will be the first female Hispanic governor in U.S. history—and an instant national GOP spokeswoman.

It is a biennial ritual of punditry to speculate about the direction of the Hispanic vote: "This election,"a thousand columnists will write, "Hispanics will truly make a difference." This is not that piece—well, not quite, anyway. What's notable about this year may be not so much Hispanic voters as Hispanic candidates: specifically, Republican Hispanic candidates.

In addition to Martinez, who currently leads in the polls and has been endorsed by Sarah Palin, there's Marco Rubio, the Tea Party favorite who drove Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Florida, and Brian Sandoval, a former judge who holds a big lead in the Nevada gubernatorial race. Sure, that's only three candidates. But in the 74 elections this year for governor or U.S. Senate—not all of them competitive—there are no Democratic Hispanic nominees. "Republicans have done a great job of recruiting Hispanic candidates," one Democratic strategist told me. "They are giving us a big wakeup call this year."

In 2008, Hispanics amounted to 9 percent of the electorate—a record turnout—and went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama and Democrats. This year, the Democratic National Committee is devoting $50 million to getting 2008's first-time voters, principally minorities and young people, to the polls again. "I hear some folks saying that because there's no immigration reform, Hispanics are going to stay home," says Andres Ramirez of NDN, a Washington think tank formerly known as the New Democrat Network. "Other folks say because there's no immigration reform, Hispanics are going to come out in record numbers, to flex their muscles and show they're still a presence."

Ramirez thinks both arguments miss the point. From 1992 to 2008, he points out, the number of Hispanic voters steadily increased from 2 million to 12 million. This trend, Ramirez says, isn't primarily driven by issues—it's a demographic inevitability. "An estimated 50,000 Hispanics who are citizens turn 18 every month," Ramirez says. "Census projections say this will be a consistent trend for the next 18 years. There's going to be more Hispanics who engage simply because more are coming into the system."

Democrats say that Hispanic voters won't turn out for the likes of Martinez, Sandoval, and Rubio because of their views on such issues as immigration, which a recent poll says is their top issue in key states. Martinez's campaign ran a television commercial blaming her opponent for giving "sanctuary to criminal illegals, like child molester Juan Gonzalez"—a spot that drew comparisons to the infamous Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Sandoval has said he favors Arizona's tough new illegal-immigration law. Rubio has called for excluding illegal immigrants from the census. Democratic activists say (and hope) Hispanic voters will see past these candidates' last names and be turned off by their rhetoric.

But that may be wishful thinking. One Democratic political consultant in Nevada told me canvassers in Las Vegas' heavily Hispanic neighborhoods hear over and over, "Si, si, Sandoval!" Never mind that Sandoval doesn't speak Spanish. That didn't stop him from making his first television ad of the general-election campaign a Spanish-language spot titled "Ya Es Hora" ("It Is Time") that ran during the World Cup. "When Sandoval says things like that he supports the Arizona law, Hispanic voters just assume he's lying to get elected," the consultant says.

Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington who is also a partner in a polling firm called Latino Decisions, has focused much of his research on Hispanic candidates. "Everything overwhelmingly points to a mobilizing effect for Latino voters," he says. "It is a huge, documented effect, with evidence across states, across types of offices. Latino voters respond, have higher rates of political engagement, are more trusting of government—all those things—when they see themselves represented in elected office."

Barreto's research on this effect builds on work dating to the 1950s, when Irish and Italian last names suddenly started showing up on ballots across the Northeast. "It was a ploy by both parties to engage white ethnic voters," he says. And it worked. Like white ethnic voters, Hispanics stand to benefit from remaining a swing group rather than a base group and from attaining political power themselves rather than being represented by others.

It's on that score that Democrats may find some reason for hope. They may not have top Hispanic candidates this year, but the party is home to more than 90 percent of Hispanics in partisan office. At a Democratic Party conference of Latino leaders in Washington in June, the buzz was about people like Linda Chavez-Thompson, a former labor leader running for lieutenant governor in Texas, and Catherine Cortez Masto, the nation's only Hispanic attorney general, who is seeking re-election in Nevada. There are three Democratic Hispanic nominees for statewide offices in New Mexico.

But when your top Hispanic contender in the country's most populous state is a candidate for superintendent of public instruction—not exactly an office with the prominence of governor—then you may tend to focus on the number of candidates instead of the offices they're running for. As Democrats look to repeat 2008's historic turnout, they may find that Hispanics will make a big difference in November—but maybe not in quite the way they'd prefer.

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Molly Ball is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and former lead political reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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