But talk to Latino leaders, and you won’t hear a whole lot of optimism about 2012.
“It would appear to be a good opportunity on the surface, but in reality it’s not,” said Juan Andrade, president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. “It does not necessarily follow that the representatives will be Latino, as much as we would like for that to be the case.”
In fact, despite upwards of a dozen new districts created by redistricting where Latinos could constitute a majority – and many others where they will be close to it – there is a real sense of apprehension whether they can be won by Latino candidates.
The reasons why, to hear Latino leaders tell it, is complicated.
First, let’s examine population growth. Despite constituting 43 percent of the country’s overall growth in the last 10 years, the spike in Latinos in the U.S. has been disproportionately among young people. And even among those who can vote, turnout has been low.
Second, Latino politicians haven’t been cultivated by the party establishments; thus, those establishments are operating at a deficit when it comes to running for higher office. And even when there have been Latino politicians ready to make the leap in winnable congressional districts, Latino leaders say the establishment has often favored their non-Latino opponents.
And third, despite the many districts that are winnable for Latinos, unlike with majority-black districts, many of them are not so overwhelmingly favorable to Latinos that they are virtually guaranteed wins.
“(The districts) were not created to ensure the election of a Latino candidate,” Andrade said. “In many of these districts, there will be non-Latino candidates running against us.”
This latter dynamic has already cropped up in a few high-profile races. In Texas, Rep. Lloyd Doggett is set to run in a Democratic primary in a newly drawn majority-Latino district against a rising Latino star, state Rep. Joaquin Castro (D). The newly-drawn 35th district is 63 percent Latino, including 58 percent of the voting-age population.
In New Mexico, Rep. Martin Heinrich (D) is the early favorite in the open Democratic Senate primary, despite facing another rising Latino star in state Auditor Hector Balderas (D). The Land of Enchantment is the most heavily Hispanic state in the country – comprising 46 percent of all residents and about the same amount of the Democratic primary electorate – but it has not elected a Hispanic to the Senate since the 1970s.
Balderas, who was the youngest Hispanic statewide officeholder in the country when he was elected five years ago at the age of 33, says the new generation of Latinos are getting more involved, but that there is still plenty of progress to be made.
And he says it starts with his race.
“I see this race both as a local and a national opportunity for Latino voters to become more engaged,” he said. “I believe that more Latino leaders need to answer the call to serve.”
While Balderas’s contest is the most high-profile so far, Latinos see similar situations unfolding for Heinrich’s plurality-Hispanic Albuquerque House seat, along with a new open seat in Nevada and potentially one in Arizona, along with several of the newly crafted majority-Latino districts in California (where the new Citizens Redistricting Commission overhauled the map and left many open majority-Latino seats).
There’s also a Latino tea party favorite, former solicitor general Ted Cruz, running in the crowded Texas GOP Senate primary, and another Latino, former Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, running for the Democratic nomination. Texas is the second most Hispanic state in the country, with a 38 percent Hispanic population.
“I don’t think there’s a shortage of viable candidates; what there may not be is party support for Latino candidates where there is an opportunity,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “It’s (as if) Latino candidates can only run in majority-Latino districts.”
California represents a particularly stark illustration of that problem.
Under the final map passed by that state’s redistricting commission, there are 13 California House districts with a majority of Latino residents. Of those, only one has Latinos constituting more than 52 percent of the voting-age population. Another eight have between 49 percent and 52 percent Latinos who are 18 years or older, and 12 more have at least one-quarter adult Latinos.
That means there are a lot of districts that perform marginally in favor of Latinos or where a Latino candidate has an opportunity – and conversely, lots of places where they could lose that opportunity to a non-Latino candidate.
Vargas said there’s plenty standing in the way of Latinos winning those seats, including the party establishment.
“The issue becomes...are you going to have party support for some of these candidates?” Vargas said. “And historically, you haven’t.”
Democratic consultant Andres Ramirez says Latinos also may not be able to take advantage of the raft of new seats because of a lack of experienced candidates.
Indeed, in almost every state where Latinos constitute a significant amount of the voting-age population, their representation in Congress and the state legislature doesn’t match.
“There are a lot of qualified Latinos that can run, but not a lot that have actually been mentored or brought through the ranks to position themselves,” Ramirez said. “Because of the uncertainty going on with redistricting … there hasn’t been a significant effort to identify and recruit Latinos en masse to fill these potential seats.”
None of this is to say that Latinos won’t win many or most of these new seats in the Golden State. Indeed, in many of the open Latino seats in California, there are already well-regarded and experienced Latino candidates running, and there are even Latinos running in many districts that aren’t heavily Hispanic.
But Latino leaders are skeptical that their membership in the next Congress will be increase much beyond where it is now, despite a map the should help them do just that.