The rise of the Hispanic super-PAC

There’s a new phenomenon in Washington: the Hispanic super-PAC, which aims to give political voice to the nation’s fastest-growing demographic.

Two have cropped up since the beginning of the year. Another that formed as a regular PAC in 2010 has relaunched as a super-PAC, expanding its efforts from a single House district to 15. And at least one other Hispanic PAC is considering making the leap to super-PAC status.

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Some are liberal, some conservative. Some plan to target House and Senate races, others the presidential race. All share the belief that they are uniquely positioned to empower Hispanics in a way that the political parties have not and cannot.

“We see an opportunity, because there’s a gap here,” said Angelette Aviles of Hispanic Vote PAC, a conservative group that formed the third week in January. “Even with the Republican Party, they say they have Hispanic outreach, but they never dedicate a budget to it. We’re helping to bridge that gap.”

Their arrival creates an unusual conundrum for good-governance advocates: The under-representation of Hispanics in American politics is widely recognized, and any effort to engage Hispanic voters is generally met with applause. But the rise of the Hispanic super-PAC represents an even greater influx of the unaccountable, unlimited election cash against which both parties have railed.

“McCain-Feingold was supposed to increase transparency in our campaign finance,” said a Republican Party source. “It clearly hasn’t. These super-PACs are funneling money all over the place.”

Those doubting the increasing importance of the Hispanic electorate need look no further than swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. And in Florida, the GOP presidential candidates have been actively courting the Hispanic vote with Spanish-language ads and vicious attacks on each other’s immigration policies. Almost 1.5 million Hispanics are registered to vote in Tuesday’s presidential primary in Florida — more than 13 percent of the electorate there, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

A heterogeneous population representing multiple ethnic backgrounds and cultures, Hispanics are difficult to pigeonhole politically but have historically trended Democratic. But growing evidence suggests the potential for that to change, creating an opening for Republicans and a dilemma for Democrats.

“Republicans don’t need a large number of Hispanics. All they need to do is get a few points in each of these states and shave off that margin, and Democrats have a problem,” said Joe Velasquez of the American Latino Alliance PAC.

Velasquez’s group formed in mid-January and is putting together a muscular fundraising and campaign structure, bringing on the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Hispanic media guru James Aldrete. The super-PAC plans to support President Obama’s reelection and Democratic Senate candidates in seven states: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Arizona, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

“We’re a very, very, very partisan Democratic operation,” Velasquez said. “We’re going to be heavy with the president.”

Another group, the American Worker PAC, intends to spend at least $5 million during the cycle, concentrating its efforts on 15 marginal House districts that have Hispanic populations of 25 percent or higher. 

“2012 is the first time in American history that Latinos will have a chance to flex their power,” said the PAC’s leader, former union operative Chuck Rocha.

The PAC’s Latino Project went on the air in Texas this month against Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco (R-Texas) with radio ads blasting him as a bank executive who has forgotten whom he represents in Congress.

“Not surprising,” the ad says. “This is the same Quico Canseco who was slapped with over $700,000 in liens for unpaid taxes and fees, but refuses to consider raising taxes on himself and fellow millionaires.”

Canseco spokesman Scott Yeldell dismissed the Hispanic character of the group, calling it a consortium of big labor groups shilling for Democrats who despise Canseco’s pro-growth policies.

“While they may have decided to call themselves the ‘Latino Project,’ this is a misnomer for their super-PAC,” Yeldell said. “Ethnicity has nothing to do with this group or the issues they are wrong about.”

What is striking about these Hispanic super-PACs is their lack of emphasis on immigration policy. The conservative Hispanic Vote PAC isn’t going to touch the issue, while other groups said immigration may or may not be one aspect of their advocacy.

Polling consistently shows that Hispanic voters prioritize issues like jobs, education and healthcare over immigration. But candidates and parties generally center their outreach to the community on immigration, in the absence of another specific issue they feel speaks directly to the Hispanic community.

A Democratic National Committee spokesman declined to comment for this story. But a Democratic official in a Southwestern state said Hispanic super-PACs could succeed where the parties have struggled, by tailoring a broad-based economic message to the concerns of Hispanic voters and targeting the Spanish-language media.

“Those groups will be more effective, if they are able to do it right, than frankly our party or any others, because they can focus on a specific set of needs,” the official said.

By law, parties and candidates cannot coordinate with super-PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals to spend supporting candidates and attacking their opponents. But Republican National Committee spokeswoman Alexandra Franceschi said the GOP wants to see Hispanics involved at every level of the Republican Party.

“We think the fact that these super-PACs are focused on the Hispanic vote shows the growing importance of the Hispanic electorate, and how important it will be in the 2012 election,” she said.

The difference that super-PACs could make in ushering in a new era of influence for Hispanics in American politics could be profound. 

David Mason, a former Federal Election Commission chairman now with the Aristotle consulting firm, said Hispanic super-PACs should be wary of party-oriented politics. But if they can develop into a mature grassroots movement with the ability to raise money internally, they could parallel the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose influence transcends elections and helps set the legislative agenda in Washington.

And Joseph Birkenstock, former chief counsel for the DNC who has also advised Stephen Colbert’s super-PAC, said the phenomenon could help the Hispanic community achieve its goals quicker than African-Americans, who faced a lag of more than a century between the Civil War and their community’s emergence as a potent political force.

“Happily, it’s not going to take that long for the Hispanic community to find its voice,” he said.