Hispanic populations have grown dramatically in several states Republicans see as crucial to their party’s efforts to retake the Senate, making some GOP strategists worry that a heated immigration reform debate could nix those efforts.
New census data show minority communities booming in states such as Montana, Nebraska and Missouri, which saw their Hispanic populations leap by 58, 77 and 79 percent, respectively, in the last 10 years.
"If this becomes an election all about the economy, there's a major opening for a Republican candidate to appeal to Latino voters," said Bob Moore, a Republican pollster. "But if it becomes about immigration, then it could be problematic for the Republican nominee."
Each of Montana, Nebraska and Missouri's Hispanic populations remains in the single digits. But with increasingly competitive Senate races, even small blocs of voters can make a difference. Hispanics favored Democrats by a 3-to-2 margin last election, in a year when a record 19 million were eligible voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
These voters are "a force to be reckoned with," said Al Cardenas, the new head of the American Conservative Union. But how the GOP reckons with them on immigration reform may decide whether a Republican Senate majority becomes a reality.
The GOP's grasp of the growth and influence of U.S. Hispanic communities isn't as strong as some in the party would like it to be, Cardenas said. "It's a work in progress."
He added that Republicans need to develop their entreaties to this voting bloc.
"The key to it is not so much the substance of views, but the quality and compassion of your delivery," said Cardenas.
Danny Diaz, a Republican strategist, echoed Cardenas's concern, and said any talk about immigration leading into 2012 must be "respectful."
"To the degree that it's not, it's less than helpful," said Diaz, who advised Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) on his successful run last election cycle. "It's largely understood, but the question is whether it makes its way into practice."
GOP immigration hardliners, such as Rep. Steve King (Iowa) and former Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), have indicated they want to keep immigration a national issue, especially as it pertains to the upcoming presidential nominating contest.
Tancredo, as a 2008 presidential candidate, fiercely opposed the immigration reform bill that the Senate had then been considering. The rest of that year’s GOP field eventually took the same stance.
Something similar could happen this cycle if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) picks next year to bring up the DREAM Act, which would make a path to legality for younger illegal immigrants. If 2012’s GOP presidential contenders all stand against the DREAM Act, it could redound to Democratic candidates in competitive Senate races in the form of decisive Hispanic support.
Reid took 69 percent of the Hispanic vote in Nevada's Senate race last year, according to exit polls, which helped clinch his 5-point win over Republican candidate Sharron Angle — a win that had supporters chanting "Si se puede" at the Democrat's Las Vegas victory party.
Also, in Colorado, support from Hispanic voters helped Sen. Michael Bennet (D) defeat his 2010 Republican challenger in a race decided by fewer than 30,000 votes.
"In states that are purple, a few thousand Hispanic votes may well make the difference," Cardenas said.
Traditionally, in states like Florida, Arizona and Texas, the Hispanic vote was "truly pivotal," Cardenas said. Nowadays, the Hispanic vote is more geographically diverse. Ohio, Virginia and North Dakota are among the other states that recorded spikes in Latino population growth since the last census.
"You've got probably another 10 or 12 states where, in a very close election, [it] could be a significant tilting point," Cardenas said.
In Wisconsin, Cardenas noted, the Hispanic population shot up by more than 74 percent in the last decade. New census data shows that it accounts for 5.9 percent of the state population.
"The Hispanic vote there could be meaningful," Cardenas said.
While the community's levels of voter participation since 2006 have remained stable, observers suggest a growing number of successful Hispanic candidates could be a sign that the so-called sleeping giant of American politics is waking up.
"Latino voters are paying attention," said Patricia Guadalupe, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), a non-partisan group that trains candidates and tracks voter participation.
There are now 26 Hispanic members of Congress, eight of whom are Republicans, according to NALEO. Party strategists point out that Republican Hispanic candidates won last year's races for governor in New Mexico and Nevada, along with races for Florida's open Senate seat and four House seats.
Regardless, reliable Hispanic support for Democrats shows the GOP needs a "change in approach," said Javier Ortiz, a Washington-based Republican strategist.
"You need to say, 'Come and be a part of our campaign,'" Ortiz said, adding that methods of "Latino outreach" tend to separate Hispanics from the rest of American society.
"There should be no distinction in the message that you deploy in the Hispanic community: The message is, 'You are American,'" Ortiz said.
The GOP can appeal to voters on issues like the economy, taxes and school choice programs, Ortiz said. He acknowledges, though, that many Hispanic voters haven't forgotten the harsh rhetoric some Republican politicians have used when speaking about immigration.
"I hope that people can see beyond all the issues of the past," Ortiz said.