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Which of the nation’s two main political parties is more successful in wooing Hispanic voters? The Democrats, of course. In 2012, President Obama won a whopping 75% of the Hispanic vote, improving on the 67% he won in 2008.
But paradoxically, perhaps, it’s the Republicans, not the Democrats, who are more successful in recruiting and promoting Hispanic political candidates — and that could eventually result in huge gains for the GOP with Hispanic voters, too.
Currently, Democrats can point to only two prominent Hispanic national figures — Antonio Villaraigosa and Julian Castro — and both are just mayors, the former in Los Angeles, the latter in San Antonio. Republicans, by contrast, already boast two Hispanic governors, Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Brian Sandoval in Nevada, as well as two new Hispanic US Senators — Marco Rubio in Florida, and more recently, Ted Cruz in Texas.
And that’s not all: in 2010, when Martinez, Sandoval and Rubio were elected riding a wave of Tea Party fervor, freshmen Republican Hispanics also triumphed in six House races. Two of these newcomers, Jaime Herrera Butler in Washington, and Raul Labrador in Idaho, were the first ever Hispanic representatives elected in their states, and both were re-elected in 2012.
Recent GOP Hispanic victories didn’t just materialize out of thin air. While Republicans at the national level have adopted stances on immigration that have alienated many Hispanic voters, elements of the GOP who disagree with those stances have been quietly organizing a massive recruitment drive to attract promising Hispanic candidates – and it seems to be working.
The spearhead of the GOP effort is Ed Gillespie, George W. Bush’s former communication director, who heads up the Republican Strategy Leadership Committee (RSLC), and in 2012 served as a senior campaign adviser to Mitt Romney. Gillespie has teamed up with Martinez, Sandoval, and other former top Bush Hispanic advisers like Lionel Sosa to try to shift the focus of GOP Hispanic communications, including Hispanic candidate recruitment.
In fact, much of the new effort is aimed at the state legislative level, where Democrats have traditionally ruled the roost. Gillespie has set a goal of recruiting 200 Hispanic candidates for state elective office – with the expectation that 75 will win — in 2014. That’s up from the 100 candidates that ran in 2010. The RSLC has also doubled the budget to match its expanded recruitment goal.
You might think the Democrats are doing the same – but they’re not. Confident that their non-Hispanic candidates can appeal to Hispanics on the issues, they haven’t placed special emphasis on fielding Hispanic candidates at any level. Democrats claim that Republicans are merely pandering to Hispanic voters, who won’t necessarily support Hispanic candidates – and shouldn’t — just because they share the same ethnic background.
But Democrats appear to be underestimating the desire of Hispanics to see other Hispanics hold elective office, especially at the national level, without having to rely on powerful “Anglo” politicians to speak for them.
Some Democrats in Hispanic-rich states like Arizona quietly acknowledge that their party has a long-term recruitment problem. In the 2012 election, the White House openly backed Hispanic former Surgeon General Richard Carmona for the Arizona Senate seat left open by the retiring Republican Jon Kyl. However, in an embarrassing blow, Republican Jeff Flake ended up beating Carmona handily.
Carmona’s defeat leaves New Jersey’s Bob Menendez as the lone Democratic Hispanic senator. And Menendez’s political future remains in limbo because of an ongoing ethics investigation that has severely damaged his standing.
How much of a difference – with Hispanic voters – does a Republican candidate’s ethnic background actually make? Sandoval in Nevada won just 35% of the Hispanic vote; Martinez about 40%. But both candidates vastly out-performed past GOP contenders. For example, in New Mexico, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who lost to Democrat Bill Richardson in 2006 managed just 22% of the Hispanic vote. Since Martinez won her general election contest by just 7%, her strong Hispanic showing – in a state where 39% of voters are Hispanic – was critical.
Moreover, since taking office, many Hispanic Democrats have rallied behind Martinez, in part due to her break with the GOP on immigration reform. Last year, her approval rating among Hispanics in the state was a hefty 70%. Ethnicity may not trump partisan affiliation – but with the right Hispanic crossover candidate, it clearly makes a huge difference.
On balance, Hispanic Republicans like Rubio, Sandoval, and Martinez seem far better positioned to make inroads with Hispanic voters than many observers assume. All three are even being touted as possible candidates for the GOP nomination in 2016. And a recent Latino Decisions poll found that Rubio and other top Republicans that have supported immigration reform could gain over 40% of the Hispanic vote nationally – enough to win Florida and other key swing states en route to capturing the presidency.
By contrast, the best the Democrats can offer is a possible slot for San Antonio mayor Julian Castro as their VP candidate. A recent poll suggests that Castro’s candidacy might galvanize a third of Hispanic voters. However, Castro is a political neophyte – as green as Sarah Palin was in 2008 – and most of the Hispanic voters that might swing his way are already in the Democratic camp.
What effect would Castro have on the general voter, including independents, especially if another breakthrough candidate, Hillary Clinton, were already the presidential candidate? No major party has ever taken the risk of running for the presidency without a white male leader somewhere on the ticket. Even Barack Obama, for all his ethnic cross-over appeal, chose an elder statesman like Biden to shore up his credibility and standing.
In fact, there’s another hurdle for Castro: San Antonio’s electorate is nearly two-thirds Hispanic, barely a quarter White, and only 7% Black. In contrast to the GOP’s Latinos, who owe their victories as much to Whites as to Latinos, Castro, despite being re-elected twice by a significant margin, has yet to demonstrate an ability to win over large numbers of White voters (just 7% of the electorate voted in his 2013 re-election).
In short, for all the talk of the Democrats’ long-term demographic advantage with Hispanics, Republicans, in fact, may have a significant and widening advantage of their own. Assuming that the GOP can shed the albatross of its hardline stance on immigration reform – which is already underway — the Democrats could well find their current favor with the Hispanic electorate subject to challenge — as soon as 2014, and even more so, in 2016.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org