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Can the Democrats Count to Viente?

Congress: A gain of 20 House seats--including Dornan's-- could return majority control, and Latinos may be the key.

September 01, 1996|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

CHICAGO — Forget for a moment President Clinton's "magic number" of 270--the electoral votes he needs to win reelection on Nov. 4. There's a smaller magic number being bandied about at the Democratic National Convention: 20. And if Antonio Gonzalez and other Latino activists here had their way, the Democrats would learn to say it in Spanish.

Twenty is the number of additional seats the Democrats must win this fall to regain control of the House. That would bring down Speaker Newt Gingrich, the chief architect of the so-called Republican revolution that began two years ago when the GOP took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

It is no coincidence that Gonzalez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration Project, has identified 20 House races across the country where Latinos could be the voters who swing an up-for-grabs House seat to the Democrats.

Gonzalez' project is an officially nonpartisan but historically Democratic-leaning group that has run Latino voter registration drives out of Los Angeles and San Antonio, Texas, for 25 years. It also does detailed public opinion polling of Latinos, both citizens and noncitizens, through its Southwest Voters Research Institute.

The institute's latest poll, released here Thursday, affirms what others show: that going into the convention, Clinton had a substantial lead over his Republican opponent Bob Dole. Among the 1,412 Latino registered voters interviewed in a telephone survey in May, 57.7% said they would vote for Clinton if the election were held then, as compared to 12.8% for Dole, 7.7% for Ross Perot's Reform Party and 5% for consumer advocate Ralph Nader, on the ballot in California as the Green Party's candidate.

But even more impressive to Gonzalez is the gap between Clinton and Dole in Latino voters' eyes: 66.6% had a favorable impression of the president and only 26.7% saw the former Kansas senator favorably.

"A 40-point gap is nearly insurmountable," said the normally cautious Gonzalez. "Clinton has the Latino vote locked up if his campaign doesn't do something that really angers Latino voters, like starting to bash immigrants. Even then, they won't vote for Dole but just stay home on election day. That's why the other story in these numbers is the Democrats' chance of using the Latino vote to win back Congress."

Gonzalez can rattle off from memory 20 House races where his polling estimates the voting gap between Democrats and Republicans at 5% or less, and where Latinos could swing the outcome in either direction. Four are in Texas, with one each in Florida, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. The rest are all in California--eight in the sprawling suburbs of Greater Los Angeles and four in agricultural areas like the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys.

"If the Democrats put resources into getting out the Latino vote," he says, "it would go a long way toward giving them back control of Congress--maybe even the California Legislature."

Latino Democrats in Congress, like Los Angeles' Xavier Becerra, share Gonzalez' hopeful assessment but haven't had much luck convincing their colleagues to buck conventional Capitol Hill wisdom, which holds that Clinton doesn't have "coattails."

"We have to make our case. [Clinton] has to make his case. Voters are independent," is the way House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt put it in a USA Today report on Clinton's apparent inability to carry his party's other candidates on the ballot.

That attitude may help explain a gaffe committed by Gephardt or Martin Frost (D-Texas), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in one of the convention's least-noticed but most revealing, moments.

Early Wednesday afternoon, long before most of the delegates started filling Chicago's United Center, a parade of 23 little-known Democrats running for Congress in far-flung districts from North Dakota to San Diego took to the podium for a series of brief speeches. They weren't out to rouse the sparse audience in the hall but the folks back home. They were taping campaign commercials, using the priceless backdrop of the national convention. So an invitation to the podium is tantamount to a vote of confidence by the party leadership that a House seat is winnable.

Much to the chagrin of California Democrats, missing from the roster was Loretta Sanchez, a popular Garden Grove businesswomen running in the 46th District against Robert K. Dornan, one of the few Republicans in Congress who may be more disliked by Democrats than Gingrich. This is also one of the 20 districts on Gonzalez' list as winnable by Democrats if the Latino turnout is big enough.

"I don't get it," a disappointed congressional staffer told me later. "Here's a chance to help a smart, attractive Latina against one of the most unpopular guys in Congress. And Frost, or Gephardt, or somebody in the DCCC didn't let her on that podium."

Despite the apparent snub, Sanchez was upbeat, saying she came to Chicago to raise campaign funds, not get TV time. "Television won't do me much good. This district needs to be worked door-to-door."

Perhaps. But Gonzalez would argue that somebody needs to remind the party honchos that the magic number in Spanish is viente.

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