As Hispanic population grows, political parties vie for Latino hearts and minds - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

As Hispanic population grows, political parties vie for Latino hearts and minds

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Posted: Monday, November 22, 2010 4:00 am | Updated: 7:33 am, Fri Dec 3, 2010.

In recent years, the Del Yaqui Restaurant in Guadalupe has been a barometer of the battle over the political hearts and minds of Latino voters.

Lunchtime tension was so high during the Maricopa County Sheriff Office's crime sweeps of the town in 2008, when a picture of Sheriff Joe Arpaio was put up in the restaurant as a joke, an enraged patron tore it down. And this year, the staff saw clientele disappear after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070.

"I guess there's only two things (for Latinos) to do," one customer said during the summer fury over the immigration law. "We can leave the state, or vote accordingly in the next election."

In a 2010 election in which Republicans made gains at every level of government, the hostility the party received from Latinos, the country's biggest and fastest-growing minority group, was palpable. For the third straight cycle, Latinos preferred Democrats over Republicans by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, 64 percent to 34 percent, according to exit polling.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a concern," said Jesse Hernandez, president of the Arizona Latino Republican Association.

The trend did not hurt the GOP in Arizona, as Brewer led her party's sweep of statewide offices, and the Republicans strengthened their hold on the Legislature. However, Latino voters played decisive roles in Senate races in California, Nevada, Colorado and Washington - and likely cost the GOP control of that chamber.

For Democrats, their performance among Latino voters was a silver lining in what was a bloody election. And it's a trend that Republicans - especially in Arizona - ignore at their own peril, pollsters say.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos made up 12.5 percent of the national population in 2000, a figure that is projected to double by 2050.

"We're already there in Nevada and Colorado. Those states should have gone Republican, and they didn't," said Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington and analyst for Latino Decisions, a polling firm. "It was 100 percent the result of strong Latino vote for Democrats.

"Republicans need to win in the high 30s of the Latino vote, or they are going to have to win 60 to 65 percent of the white vote. Arizona is the next state to tip, maybe by 2016, for sure by 2020 if the Latino vote increases in Arizona like the numbers are trending now."

DeeDee Blase aims to stem that tide. The Scottsdale resident is founder of Somos Republicans, an advocacy group that has 4,500 members in seven states. She looks at exit polling from the 2004 election, when George W. Bush received about 45 percent of the Latino vote, laments the dropoff since and worries about missed opportunities among a demographic that typically is entrepreneurial, faith-based and socially conservative.

Are Latinos capable of throwing weight around in a national election? Not yet. The likeliest battlegrounds in the 2012 presidential election are in such states as Pennsylvania and Ohio, where Republicans made big gains this year and have small Latino populations.

But that is of little comfort to Blase, whose concerns are closer to home.

Latinos made up 30 percent of Arizona's estimated 6.5 million population. There are 766,000 eligible Latino voters in the state, with about half registered.

"I see us losing Arizona," Blase said. "I don't like pointing the finger at Republicans. I like fighting with the Democrats. Everyone in the Republican Party interest should be concerned about a drop to 30 percent (among Latinos). That is significant. How can we win the 2012 election with those numbers?"

GREATER NUMBERS?

Marc Hugo Lopez, associate director at the non-partisan Pew Research Center, said that the Latino voting bloc has increased by more than 1 million nationally for every midterm election cycle since 1998.

"The Latino population is growing, which means that the number eligible to vote is growing," Lopez said. "From 1998 to 2002, 2002 to 2006, we've seen the number of Hispanic voters grow, usually by about 1 million to 1.5 million in the midterms. So, it's likely that the number of Latinos voting in 2010 grew from 2006. How much, we don't know yet."

While the biggest concerns of Latino voters - the economy and jobs - mirrored other demographics, Lopez said, his firm's polling found that Latinos who were informed about the immigration debate were more likely to vote.

Barreto believes that exit polling has understated the level of Latino support for Democrats. He said that 80 percent of those voters nationally went for Democrats, up from the 70 percent President Barack Obama received in 2008, based on Latino Decision's election-eve polling.

"The mission of exit-poll data is to gauge competitive precincts in a state to determine a state result, so you can call the election, not tell how a particular sub-group voted," Barreto said. "So, the bellwether precincts are over-sampled, but not everybody lives there. That is not an accurate refection of an entire state.

"In all of these states, the estimated votes of Latinos for Republicans would appear to be up from 2008. That makes no theoretical sense. Nobody who works in and studies politics would tell you that will happen."

Barreto cited the exit polls from Nevada, which showed GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle - who ran campaign commercials demonizing illegal immigrants - receiving 30 percent of Latino support, outperforming John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. Latino Decisions' poll gave Democrat Harry Reid a 90-8 edge.

GOP CANDIDATES

Republicans tout inroads among the Latino community by citing eight of their winners on Election Day, all Latinos: Marco Rubio, Florida Senator-elect; Susana Martinez, New Mexico governor-elect; Brian Sandoval, Nevada governor-elect, and five new House members who will join two incumbents.

In a three-way race, Rubio received a majority of the Hispanic vote in Florida, primarily because of a Cuban-American population that leans Republican.

Barreto believes the success of the GOP Latino candidates was in part due to the moderation of their message, noting that Rubio and Martinez had conservative positions on immigration.

"They were not as conservative as Jan Brewer and Sharron Angle," Barreto said. "Those that won know better how to do outreach that most GOP candidates do not understand ... Rubio says how he's proud of his immigrant parents and how they came to America to build a new life. Sharron Angle said that immigrants come to America to join violent gangs."

Said Blase: "If my party stopped using terms like ‘Operation Wetback' and ‘anchor babies,' we'd be a lot better off."

Hernandez acknowledged that some of the discourse from Arizona Republicans during the SB 1070 debate amounted to "saying let's put immigrants in a cart and ship them out UPS." He is hopeful the party as a whole changes tone.

"We dropped the ball on that one, or as I like to say, we dropped the chalupa," Hernandez said.

"People like Rubio and Martinez said they were tough on immigration, but added, ‘Let me tell you why, in common-sense terms.' They laid it out and explained it, what the problem means to the economy and our schools. The voters understood that and responded to it."

ARIZONA BATTLE

In 1994, then-California governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, advocated Proposition 187, an anti-immigration initiative. Proposition supporters released a television ad showing undocumented people crossing the border with a voiceover: "They keep coming."

And since then, Latinos in California have kept coming - to the polls to support Democratic candidates, helping turn the home state of GOP icon Ronald Reagan into reliably blue turf.

In 1992, Barbara Boxer was elected to the Senate with 52 percent of the Latino vote. This year, as Latinos comprised 22 percent of the California electorate, exit polls gave her 65 percent support among the demographic, with Latino Decisions' polling indicating an 86-14 edge over Republican Carly Fiorina.

Latino Decisions reported 86 percent demographic support for Democrat Jerry Brown, who defeated Meg Whitman in the California governor's race.

"I fear California may be a lost cause," Blase said.

Where the future political loyalties in Arizona rest depends on outreach, officials and advocates for both major parties said.

Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said that marshaling Latino support here is more challenging than in nearby states.

"The influence of labor and what that has with Latinos in California and Nevada is a very close allegiance," Heredia said. "You can mobilize a lot more Latinos to participate. You also have a more progressive infrastructure in Colorado, with a sitting Democratic Senator and governor, so that institution was already there.

"The opportunity we have in Arizona is not as well-structured, so what we have to do is keep working with the Latino communities in the state in building it."

Hernandez said he is hopeful of an identity shift, believing that the future generations of Arizona Latinos will gravitate toward Republicans.

"Those people are going to go more to the right because they are not going to automatically relate (politically) to their parents or grandparents," Hernandez said. "I think that entrepreneurial spirit will come out, and they'll be more conservative.

"But right now? There's a mass push among the (Latino) community to the left, there's no doubt about it."

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