Rapid Latino population growth and a smattering of newly created Latino House districts across the country are giving the group a chance to amplify its voice in Congress.
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.”
Despite more than 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 are complicated.
Latinos have made up 43 percent of the country’s overall growth in the past 10 years, but the spike has come disproportionately from young people. And even among those who can vote, turnout has been low.
Also, Latino politicians haven’t been cultivated by the party establishments. Thus, they 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 while many districts are winnable for Latinos, many 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 — 46 percent of its residents and about the same proportion of the Democratic primary electorate are Latino — 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 age 33, says that the new generation of Latinos is getting more involved, but that there is still plenty of progress to be made.
And he says it starts with his campaign.
“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, Latinos see similar situations unfolding for Heinrich’s plurality-Hispanic Albuquerque House district, 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.
There’s also a Latino tea party favorite, former solicitor general Ted Cruz, running in the crowded Texas GOP Senate primary, and another Latino, retired Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, running for the Democratic nomination. Texas has a 38 percent Hispanic population — the second-highest in the country.
“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 stark illustration of that problem.
Under the final map passed by that state’s redistricting commission, there are 13 House districts with a majority of Latino residents. Of those, only one has Latinos constituting more than 52 percent of the voting-age citizens. Eight others have between 49 percent and 52 percent Latinos who can vote, and 12 more have at least one-quarter.
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 said 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.”