McCain's Rise May Upset Democrats' Western Strategy

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

For Democrats, 2008 was supposed to be the year of the Mountain West, when three years of relentless Republican attacks on undocumented immigrants would fuel a backlash among Hispanics that would change the playing field in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, and perhaps alter the landscape of presidential politics for a generation.

But the emergence of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as the likely standard-bearer for the GOP may have scrambled the equation, cooling a potential political revolt among Hispanics and sending Democrats in search of a new playbook.

"It completely screws it up," said Charles Black, a senior McCain adviser. "We nominated the one person who will not suffer that backlash."

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), whose Tucson district is heavily Hispanic, said Democrats should change their tack toward Latinos and emphasize the economy, education and health care before even raising the immigration issue. Perhaps Democrats seeking the Latino vote would be best served challenging McCain on the Iraq war, suggested Guillermo Nicacio, Arizona state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, an effort to encourage Latinos to apply for citizenship, register and vote.

Even as McCain moves to heal intraparty wounds on the immigration issue, Democratic community organizers in the West say his past battles with other Republicans over a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants left an imprint on the Latino community that will not quickly fade.

"The issue of immigration is a litmus test in the Latino community," said Grace Lopez Ramirez, director of the Mi Familia Vota campaign in Colorado. "They will at least be more interested in listening to him."

In consecutive presidential elections, the Democrats have fallen just short of the electoral college votes needed to take the White House. Ohio or Florida could have put them over the top, but this year, Democrats are looking west for those gains. The Democratic National Committee chose Denver as the site of its August nominating convention, and the party moved the Nevada caucuses to the front of the election calendar.

The Hispanic electorate has nearly doubled since President Bush's first election, from 7.5 million in 2000 to an estimated 14 million this year, according to NDN, formerly known as the New Democrat Network, a liberal think tank focused on Latino voters. Hispanics make up 31 percent of the electorate in New Mexico, 13 percent in Nevada, 12 percent in Arizona and 8 percent in Colorado.

Between 1996 and 2004, Republicans were able to cut into that Hispanic vote, moving from a 21 percent share to a 40 percent share. But in 2005, the GOP-controlled House approved legislation tightening border controls and cracking down on illegal immigrants, declaring them felons. The GOP's share of the Hispanic vote slipped from 40 percent in 2004 to 30 percent in 2006.

In primary voting so far this year, the trend has continued, according to an NDN analysis released last week. Latino turnout has surged to nearly 2 million, and 25 percent of the Latino vote has gone to Republicans; 75 percent has gone to Democrats.

Given the makeup of the Latino population, the response now seems inevitable. Waves of immigration in recent years have enlarged the Hispanic population to 44.3 million, 15 percent of the country. Two-thirds of the population is of Mexican descent, with the second largest segment, Puerto Rican, far behind at 9 percent.

Of the 29 million Latino adults, about 13 million are registered to vote, and close to half of those are foreign-born U.S. citizens.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company