Latino voters support Democrats but may not vote for them, poll reports

By Nia-Malika Henderson and Krissah Thompson
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 7:59 PM

There is good news and bad news for Democrats in a new poll ahead of the 2010 elections - Latinos support the party, but about half of those questioned say they might not show up at the polls on Nov. 2.

The gap between support and motivation provides an opening for Republicans, who have had an up-and-down relationship with Latinos over the last few years: George W. Bush made inroads, but John McCain then lost ground to Barack Obama. Recently, the GOP has done little to court these voters on issues such as education, immigration and health-care legislation.

But Republicans hold one big advantage over Democrats in key races this cycle that could matter more than any one issue - they have more high-profile Latino candidates running for statewide offices.

So even though Latinos break heavily for congressional Democrats over Republicans, in general - 65 percent to 22 percent, according to a Pew Hispanic Center poll released Tuesday - the GOP has a clear shot at attracting these voters in individual races.

The poll also found Latino Republicans to be more fired up than their Democratic counterparts - 44 percent of Latino GOPers say they have given the midterms "quite a lot of thought," compared with 28 percent of Latino Democrats.

The latter bloc has been pleased by President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, less so by the administration's handling of immigration. In all six in 10 Latinos say they back Obama.

As the midterm election draws nearer, both parties are ramping up their efforts to reach Hispanics, the country's fastest-growing segment of the electorate, on the ground and on the airwaves.

"We are getting to the point in American politics where, in all 50 states, the Latino vote is a determining factor, especially in close races," said Fernand Amandi, a managing partner in Bendixen & Amandi, a Miami-based strategy firm. "It's becoming a national vote."

The animating factor in many races throughout the country is immigration. Education, jobs, health care and the deficit rank in the poll as more important to Latinos. But Arizona's law made immigration a national issue, and is regularly showing up as pivotal.

"Given the current situation where you have a lot of unemployment and high levels of foreclosure rates and overall disenchantment on the lack of progress on key issues - all of those elements are normally indicators that you are going to see less participation," said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza. "But immigration has definitely been a point of conversation among Latino voters and we know from past experience that it has a motivating effect."

Here's the who, what, where and why on Latino voters in 2010 in key statewide races:

n California: There's a reason Jerry Brown keeps touting his ties to Cesar Chavez and why his Republican gubernatorial opponent Meg Whitman has used some of her ample war chest on Spanish-language mailings, bus and television ads - Latinos make up 19 percent of California's electorate.

But Whitman's courting of the Latino vote has been tripped up by accusations that she hired a housekeeper who was in the country illegally, making her get-tough-on-employers campaign plank a hard sell. Meanwhile, Brown has a firewall of Latino support. "There is a lot of of enthusiasm, but also anger over immigration that has carried over from Arizona to California," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "Voters are upset that people are exploiting the issue of immigration without resolving it."

n Florida: The Sunshine State, where Latinos make up nearly 13 percent of registered voters, isn't what it used to be. Democratic-leaning Caribbean natives, including Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans now outnumber Cubans, who tend to vote Republican.

Enter Marco Rubio, a telegenic Cuban backed by tea parties and dubbed the Republican Obama. Rubio, way ahead in most polls, is threading the needle with Latinos, in part by working the mushy middle. He is for the Arizona law - in Arizona, but not in Florida. And the Jeb Bush protege supports English as the country's official language, but not when it comes to some of his campaign ads. "He has taken positions on some issues that many Hispanics would be at odds with," said Amandi. "In a vacuum, he will probably do pretty well among this constituency because he is directly communicating with Hispanics, which neither of his opponents are really doing in a consistent way."

n Colorado: The White House scored big when Sen. Michael Bennet (D) won his primary in August, and officials there credited their victory to robo-calls to Latino voters by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and comedian George Lopez.

Democrats have a well-worn playbook in connecting with Latinos in this state, where 10 percent of the electorate is Hispanic. "Historically in Colorado the Latino demographic has become a real powerhouse when it comes to [voter] mobilization," said Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino.

n New Mexico: Republican candidate Susana Martinez could become the first Latina governor. In a state where Latinos make up nearly a third of the electorate, immigration has been a huge issue, with outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson's (D) more lenient approach looming large. Martinez, who leads Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D) in most polls, has taken a cue from Sen. John McCain's campaign, airing a television ad in which she talks tough about the border.

Denish pledged to end the current policy that allows illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, and Martinez countered with a pledge to take away driver's licenses of the illegal immigrants who now have them.

n Nevada: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D) hopes for returning to Washington for another term hang largely on Latino voters, which is why he said that he didn't "know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican."

Latinos make up 12 percent of registered voters in Nevada, and unions still have plenty of get-out-the-vote muscle and ad-buying power. And Reid's field operation started door-knocking in September, registering 10,000 new voters.

The Senate leader also recently introduced the DREAM Act, which would have made it easier for undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children to become citizens or legal residents. But the measure remains hung up in the Senate.

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