She’s a tough-talking New Mexico state prosecutor whose zeal for catching and deporting illegal aliens rivals that of Joe Arapaio, the Arizona county sheriff who’s come to symbolize America’s resurgent “nativism” toward immigrants.
But she’s not likely to be the target of a Justice Department lawsuit anytime soon. Democrats are too busy trying to keep Susana Martinez, a 50-year-old mother of five — and a staunch Tea Party Republican and one of Sarah Palin’s proudest “Mama Grizzlies” — from getting elected the first female Hispanic governor in US history.
And with barely a week until the mid-term election, it’s not looking good. The latest Rasmussen poll has Martinez with a solid 9-point lead over rival Diane Denish, a protégé of the state’s scandal-tarnished incumbent, Bill Richardson, who’s already served two terms and is not eligible for re-election.
Like so many other Democrats this year, Denish is vulnerable, in part, because of her party affiliation. But her close association with the once popular Richardson who’s current approval rating is a dismal 37%, hasn’t helped. The former globe-trotting diplomat who served in the Clinton administration was once in line to become Obama’s Secretary of Commerce but was forced to withdraw his name because of persistent allegations of corruption. Those charges have dogged him – and by extension Denish, who served under him – ever since.
Martinez, meanwhile, is an emerging political powerhouse in a state with the largest proportion of Hispanics in the country – in fact, well over 40% of the population claims some Hispanic heritage. And because so many are US citizens, they claim an equal share of the electorate, making the “Hispanic vote” truly decisive here.
But culturally, New Mexico’s Hispanics are also completely unlike Hispanics elsewhere. Many – who proudly call themselves “Hispanos” not “Hispanics” – are descended from Spanish settlers who arrived when New Mexico when it was still Mexican territory – hence, the state’s name. “Hispanos” generally don’t identity with more recent generations of Mexican immigrants, and they are especially wary of being associated with illegal aliens. And many do not even speak Spanish, and resent the suggestion that they should.
Martinez, who does speak Spanish but whose own ancestry is decidedly “Hispano,” exudes a strong crossover appeal that has helped her maintain a steady polling lead. On most issues, New Mexicans tend to lean Democratic – and in fact, so do most of the state’s Hispanics. In 2008, Barack Obama carried the state handily, including a 2-1 share of the Hispanic vote, consistent with his margin elsewhere.
But recent polls show Martinez with a whopping 45% of the Hispanic vote, double the support her GOP predecessor won against Richardson in 2006. It’s far from an outright majority, but more than enough to account for her current lead over Denish. Unless that changes, she’s almost certain to win next Tuesday.
Martinez is clearly no slouch. Unlike Jan Brewer and Sharron Angle, her Republican female counterparts running for higher office in neighboring Arizona and Nevada, respectively, no one considers her a flake or a ditz. She was the first female district attorney in New Mexico history, and was re-elected several times in a district considered a Democratic stronghold. With a sizable fundraising advantage over Denish, she’s been able to run a spate of highly effective TV ads that have pegged Denish as a Richardson clone, while touting her own political independence and her enthusiastic support from the state’s law enforcement associations.
And unlike Denish, Martinez has also run ads in Spanish, including one highlighting her record combating child abuse, a highly emotive issue with Latinos.
If Martinez wins, she’s almost certain to emerge as a key GOP spokesperson on immigration, further isolating the Democrats on the question of whether to crack down on illegals or grant them an “amnesty.” At least a dozen other GOP Hispanics opposed to an “amnesty” are running for higher office also. They include Cuban-American Marco Rubio, who’s running for the open US Senate seat in Florida, and Brian Sandoval, the GOP’s candidate for governor in Nevada. Both men have double-digit leads in the latest polls. Adding insult to injury, Sandoval is running against Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s son, Cory, and both Reids could well lose next week.
How could Democrats let this happen? Through sheer neglect, political observers say. Unlike Republicans, who are desperate to demonstrate their ability to reach women and ethnic minorities – and have worked overtime to recruit and support their current crop of candidates – Democrats have largely taken the ethnic voter for granted. In fact, they haven’t even bothered to field a large number of minority candidates to run for open seats in 2010, focusing instead on protecting the large number of vulnerable incumbent Democrats in the House and Senate.
In one of those incumbent races, in Orange County, CA, Rep. Loretta Sanchez is locked in a tough re-election battle with state assemblyman Van Tran, a Republican of Vietnamese descent who is banking on strong support from his community to unseat Sanchez. While the majority of the district is Hispanic and Democrat, Latinos have a much lower turnout rate than Vietnamese-Americans, which clearly worries Sanchez. In a sign of growing desperation, her campaign recently circulated a controversial flyer which warns Latino voters of a possible “Republican and Vietnamese takeover” of her district.
Race-baiting by a Latino politician? Appalling, indeed. But like Martinez’s ascendance in New Mexico, it’s a clear indication that the US “ethnic vote” is rapidly diversifying. And post-November, neither party, especially the Democrats, will be able to rest comfortably on its laurels.
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.