Hispanic voters' uncertain allegiance to Dems could swing three states in 2012

Democrats are counting on enthusiastic support from Hispanics to propel them to victory one year from now, even though a lack of progress on immigration reform under President Obama and increasingly harsh rhetoric from Republicans has left many Hispanics disenchanted with both parties.

Increasingly, no party or candidate with an eye toward Washington can afford not to appeal to this fastest-growing voter bloc in the country. Hispanics supported Obama by a two-to-one margin in the 2008 election over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), then set a record for midterm voter turnout in 2010 when 6.6 million Hispanics showed up to the polls, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

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Obama remains much more popular with Hispanics than he does with the overall population. A poll released Nov. 8 by Univision/Latino Decisions showed 48 percent of Americans overall approved of his job performance; among Hispanics, it’s 66 percent.

With their candidate pre-selected, Democrats also have the advantage of being able to organize Hispanic support early — and they’ve wasted no time. In 2008, Obama’s Hispanic outreach efforts started in June, less than six months before the general election. One year out from the 2012 election, Obama’s campaign has a Latino vote director in place, and has held Hispanic woman-to-woman phone banks and a Tamale-making event in New Mexico.

“He fought to pass the DREAM Act, supports comprehensive immigration reform and is on the right side of every Hispanic voter priority,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Gabriela Domenzain.

But Obama’s election vow to tackle immigration reform during his first year in office went unmet, in part due to the heavy lifting that healthcare reform required. And Hispanics, like all Americans, are suffering from high unemployment and an unfavorable economy three years into Obama’s presidency.

Seven in 10 registered Hispanic voters said its getting more difficult to achieve the American dream, and Obama’s approval among Hispanic Republicans is underwater by 75 points, according to a November poll of registered Hispanic voters conducted by the Democratic firm Lake Research Partners and obtained by The Hill.

“Latinos are increasingly frustrated with both parties,” wrote pollster Josh Ulibarri. “Latino voters may not be the ace in the hole that Democrats need them to be next November, if things stay the same, and it is clear Democrats will have to work hard to bring them into their corner.”

That will be especially true in key swing states and areas with large Hispanic populations, where Democrats are looking to the Hispanic vote to help them hold on to the White House and Senate and take back the House.

The outcome in three states in particular could turn on the support of Latino voters.

Arizona

Not generally considered a swing state, Arizona has popped up on the Democratic horizon due to a convergence of factors that Democrats see working in their favor.

Unlike in 2008, Obama won’t have an Arizona senator on the opposite of the ballot. Democrats were also hoping for a Hispanic candidate to run for retiring Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) seat — and they got one in former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who announced his campaign in November. Added to that is Arizona’s growing Hispanic population — historically a loyal voting bloc for Democrats — has given Democrats hope that the state’s demographics are swinging in their direction.

The successful November recall of state Senate President Russell Pearce (R), the author of the state’s contentious immigration crackdown, has fueled the notion that Americans are turning against the caustic rhetoric about immigrants that has become commonplace among many Republicans — including the presidential candidates. Herman Cain has talked up an electrified border fence, while former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) has knocked Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) on tuition discounts for illegal immigrants.

“He’s the guy that moved John McCain to the right back in 2007 and 2008, and he’s doing the exact same thing to Rick Perry. It’s pissing the Latino community off,” said DeeDee Garcia Blase, the former president of the Arizona-based Somos Republicans. She predicted that Romney would be lucky to get 9 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012.

Garcia Blase worked through Somos Republicans — which claims to be the largest national Hispanic GOP group — to promote Pearce’s recall, hoping to reform her party from within. She called it her “last-ditch attempt to do the dirty work of the GOP.”

But when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) threw his support behind a national E-Verify program, it was the last straw for Garcia Blase, who walked out of Somos Republicans to join the National Tequila Party, a “counter movement to the Tea Party” where Garcia Blase serves as co-president.

The National Tequila Party has a wall-sized map of the United States listing their goal for immigration reform (“the whole enchilada”) and their path to victory. The path starts in Arizona — “ground zero” — and heads due east.

Florida

The Sunshine State has attracted an outsize amount of political attention, due to its abundance of electoral votes, swing-state demographics and early primary date -- Florida bucked the national GOP by moving its 2012 primary up to Jan. 31.

But in no state is the Hispanic vote more difficult to gauge than in Florida, with its diverse array of immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central and South America.

“In terms of messaging and voter outreach, it would be very insulting to them and could be detrimental to any campaign that tries to cast the Hispanic vote under one broad umbrella,” said Florida GOP strategist Chris Ingram.

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In Florida’s closely watched Senate race, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) will fight for reelection against the candidate who emerges victorious from a GOP field that includes a handful of conservative Republicans and Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), the primary’s front-runner. Mack has taken a moderate stance on immigration and compared Pearce’s immigration law in Arizona to the Nazi-era Gestapo.

“He’s a little more understanding of the big picture on that issue,” Ingram said. “That could hurt him in the primary — although the hardcore conservatives would probably split the vote on that issue — and it would be beneficial to him in the general.”

Nevada

Another major battleground for both immigration and presidential politics is Nevada, one of the states hardest hit by the slumping economy. The GOP candidates also traveled to Las Vegas for a televised debate on Oct. 18, where they were welcomed by the state’s Hispanic and relatively popular Republican governor, Brian Sandoval.

Washington political-types are focused on Nevada’s Senate race, where Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) will be fighting to win his first regular term after being appointed to replace Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). In early November, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee went on the air in Nevada — in Spanish — telling radio listeners that Heller had insulted Hispanics by refusing to meet with the Latin Chamber of Commerce.

“State Democrats and Democrats in general have made massive investments early on in the turnout and outreach operation for Hispanic voters within the state,” said a Nevada Democratic strategist. “That means a sophisticated voter turnout technology, Hispanic press operations, political operations and sophisticated paid mail and TV media.”

Among Hispanic voters — who made up 16 percent of Nevada’s electorate in 2010 — 66 percent supported Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Among Spanish-speaking voters, it was 86 percent, according to internal exit polling obtained by The Hill.

But Democrats aren’t the only ones on the ground in Nevada courting Hispanic voters. In October, when Obama came to Nevada to deliver a major speech on housing initiatives, the conservative group Crossroads GPS bracketed his visit with a Spanish-language television ad entitled “Despertarse” — or “wake up.”


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