Latino voters wake up

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The outcome of the 2010 midterm elections in Arizona and across the nation was a mixed bag for Latinos. The upside is they did blow several supposed theories about Latino voters:

• Latinos don’t vote in large enough numbers to make a difference in elections;

• Democrats can continue to take them for granted because the majority of them will always vote for Democrats;

• Republican Latino candidates can’t win elections because white Republicans won’t vote for them.

This election has awakened major signs of life in the Latino “sleeping giant,” so called because many are eligible to vote, yet only a small percentage do. But that is changing.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that each election cycle, two million more Latinos are eligible to vote.

Nationally, the elections showed Latino voters’ clout is increasing with Democrats and Republicans alike.

In Arizona, demonizing of illegal immigrants and anti-Latino laws passed by a Republican-dominated legislature spurred the largest mobilization of Latino voters in state history.

The increased Latino vote is cited as one reason that a Republican newcomer did not unseat Congressman Raul Grijalva in his heavily Democratic southern Arizona district.

Still, Latino votes did not prevent Republicans from grabbing most of the state House and Senate seats, as well as the offices of governor, secretary of state, attorney general and superintendent of public instruction.

Several Republican Latino candidates also were carried into office by the politically red tide. Nancy Barto successfully moved from the House to the Senate in District 7, and Steve Montenegro was reelected in House District 12.

Many noticed after the election that the Arizona Democratic Party and state Democratic candidates spent little funding and resources in reaching out to Arizona Latino voters. Their thinking seemed to be that since they were the only viable option to the Latino-bashing Republicans, they didn’t have to waste efforts on Latinos.

Luis Avila, a young Latino who voted for the first time in 2010, confirmed that theory, saying he voted straight Democratic. But not because he believed Arizona’s Democratic candidates were brilliant or charismatic. “I didn’t vote for Democrats. I voted against Republicans.”

These 2010 tactics may backfire on Democrats in future elections. Latinos are now developing their own strategies to send a message to Democrats – in Arizona and on up to President Barack Obama – that unless the party pushes more of the issues that Latinos care about, they could turn to Republican and third party candidates who are not vehemently anti-Latino to address their issues.

The impetus for that strategy may have come from the national election scene. And Arizona Democrats should note the lessons.

National pundits are saying that the growing Latino voting edge saved the Senate from going Republican, and rescued Senate majority leader Harry Reid from defeat.

Democrats in Nevada have focused intensely on building ties to the Latino community for years. Many young Latinos volunteered to help Reid’s cause, chanting “¡Sí se puede!” on election night.  The next morning, a triumphant Reid said the Latino outreach effort was well worth it.

“People have, in effect, made fun of me, saying, ‘Why are you wasting your time with a group that doesn’t register, and if they register, they don’t vote?’” said Reid. “Well, we proved that wrong in 2008 and we certainly proved it wrong last night.”

The Latino vote in California and Nevada blocked Republicans from gaining the governorship and congressional seats there, analysts say. And the Latino vote in Illinois saved their Dem governor.

But the Latino voter edge can cut both ways. Latinos also voted for Republicans in increased numbers.

Republican Susana Martinez won the governorship in New Mexico, as did Brian Sandoval in Nevada.  Marco Rubio won a U.S. Senate seat, and David Rivera and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen won House seats in Florida. The Florida candidates won a majority of Hispanic votes, mostly Cuban American, but the Republicans in other states won on the strength of their non-Latino votes.

What’s true is that the growing numbers of Latino voters have demonstrated that they are paying close attention, and prepared to support the candidates who respond to their concerns.

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