GOP Latinos poised for big wins, but party's tough immigration stance is a hurdle

As the Hispanic population has grown in the United States, so has the number of Hispanics in government.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 9:45 PM

ALBUQUERQUE - Turn on the television in any state near the border with Mexico, and before long you'll see a Republican campaign ad that looks something like this one, which ran here earlier this year: "I'm standing in New Mexico," the candidate says, "and on the other side of that fence is the murder capital of the world." A picture of armed police flashes across the screen. "When crime spills over, I prosecute."

What makes this particular spot unusual is the name of the candidate who made it: Susana Martinez. Like many Republicans, New Mexico's candidate for governor is taking advantage of voters' anger over illegal immigration. She has pledged to go after undocumented workers and make it illegal for them to obtain driver's licenses. She defends Arizona's right to pass its controversial new law targeting illegals, and she is a vocal supporter of ending sanctuary policies for illegal immigrants who are arrested for committing crimes.

It has been a successful strategy. Martinez is running ahead of her Democratic opponent, Diane Denish, and could become the country's first Latino woman governor.

Martinez is one of a trio of Latino Republicans poised to win high office this year in part by running on an anti-immigration platform. In Florida, Senate candidate Marco Rubio is ahead of Democrat Kendrick Meek and independent Charlie Crist. And in Nevada, gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval is leading Democrat Rory Reid.

If they win, Martinez, Rubio and Sandoval would make up a high-profile triumvirate that Republicans hope will help the party woo increasingly influential Latino voters. The nation's fastest-growing voting bloc - nearly half the voters in New Mexico, for instance, are of Latino origin - has largely shunned the GOP in recent years.

Yet those Republican hopes may be difficult to realize, if only because the GOP's anti-immigration rhetoric is a primary reason Latinos have turned away from the party.

"It will be a big victory symbolically, especially if the Democrats don't have any [Latino governors], and with me gone I don't think there is one," said outgoing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), the nation's most prominent Hispanic officeholder. "However, it will not translate into votes nationally because of the very, very hard-line position these candidates have taken on immigration."

Republican strategists acknowledge that the tone of the immigration debate has hurt the party among many Hispanics. Indeed, a recent national survey of Latino voters found that support for Republican candidates has declined steadily since 2004, when George W. Bush won 40 percent of Hispanics. In the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won 31 percent of the Latino vote. And in this year's midterms, just 22 percent of Latino registered voters say they plan to support Republicans, according to a poll this month by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

For the GOP, the more discouraging finding may be that just 6 percent of those polled said they see the Republican Party as more concerned about Latinos than the Democratic Party.

"Republicans need to be clear that they not only want but welcome Hispanics into the Republican Party, and having these three prominent successful Hispanic Republicans sends that message loud and clear," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is working for Rubio's campaign.

Yet Democrats say Martinez, Rubio and Sandoval are trying to have it both ways - trumpeting their Hispanic heritage while embracing policies that work against fellow Latinos.

"Hispanics, like everybody else, are concerned about safety at the border," Denish said in an interview in Santa Fe. "Immigration and border security are two different issues. My opponent, she's spent 10, 11 months making people feel bad about New Mexico and about hard-working people that are here to support their families."

Denish said she supports comprehensive immigration reform, but believes Arizona's law "went too far."

Martinez, Rubio and Sandoval each boast biographical tales of overcoming long odds to achieve their version of the American dream. Martinez said she grew up poor in Texas, the youngest of three latchkey children whose parents worked full-time jobs. Her father, a former boxer in the Marines, was a deputy sheriff, and her mother held administrative office jobs. When her dad started a private security company, Martinez, then 17, became one of his security guards and reportedly carried her own gun while patrolling the parking lots at bingo games.

After college and law school, Martinez moved to Las Cruces, N.M., to work in the Doña Ana County district attorney's office. Although raised a Democrat, she eventually switched parties to run for district attorney against her former boss in 1996. She won handily and has cruised to reelection three times since.

This is how Martinez hopes Latino voters will see her - not as a crusader against illegal immigration, but as an American success story.

"I know who I am, and I know that I'm different, but I don't focus on that, and I don't think people in New Mexico necessarily focus on that either," Martinez said in an interview at her campaign headquarters here. "I grew up in El Paso, where the cultures and ethnic groups are so diverse, and no one ever really notices the differences. That's how New Mexico is. And it doesn't get pointed out to me too often - except from people from Washington."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company