Reporting from Las Vegas —
For years, Brian Sandoval has been a rising Republican star, a trailblazer touted as a symbol of the party's increasing diversity.
Square-jawed and handsome, he was elected Nevada's first Latino attorney general, showcased at the 2004 Republican National Convention and appointed the state's first Latino federal judge.
Now, as the GOP nominee for governor, Sandoval has come to symbolize something else: a tension within the Republican Party between efforts to attract Latinos and actions that repel members of the nation's fastest-growing minority group.
Across the country, GOP candidates have vigorously supported Arizona's tough new immigration law and, in some cases, gone further by supporting a rewrite of the Constitution to deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of those here illegally. (Sandoval opposes that effort.)
The tough talk has rallied conservatives and drawn support from independents and even some Democrats frustrated with the current patchwork of state and federal immigration laws.
But the stance has also alienated Latinos who feel they are once again being scapegoated by a party with a history of harsh rhetoric and a penchant for backing policies — making English the official language, denying public services to illegal immigrants — that many consider punitive.
"It's always the same thing," said Victor Chicas, 43, a Las Vegas restaurant worker and naturalized citizen, who came nearly 20 years ago from El Salvador. "Blame the immigrants."
When Sandoval, 47, left the bench last year and launched his gubernatorial bid, Otto Merida was an avid supporter. A Republican and head of the Las Vegas-based Latin Chamber of Commerce, Merida even wrote Sandoval a $500 check.
But Merida has since switched his allegiance, embracing Sandoval's Democratic opponent, Rory Reid. The reason: the Arizona law.
Battling for the GOP nomination, Sandoval endorsed the measure and came out against driver's licenses for illegal immigrants as part of a rightward shift that left Merida and other Latinos angry and confused. Reid opposes the law, which requires police to determine the status of people they stop and suspect are illegal immigrants.
"People are using this issue just to get votes," said Merida, who emphasized that he was speaking personally and not for the chamber. "They're dividing this country and creating friction at a time we need to be more united than ever."
Sandoval said some interpret the law differently than he does. "I see it as Arizona's effort to get its arms around a very extreme public safety problem and the inability of the federal government to secure the borders," he said.
"I've been very straightforward with everybody in this state with regard to my positions," Sandoval said, shrugging off the anger among some Latinos. "If I'm fortunate to be elected, I'll continue to work with the Hispanic community."
The political stakes are considerable, not just in Nevada but throughout the country. From 2000 to 2008, Latino registration grew 54% nationally and turnout rose 64%, according to America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group.
The concentration of Latino voters, who have trended more Democratic over the last several years, is also significant. Several states, including Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, have grown more competitive in presidential elections as the Latino population swelled. Texas, now solidly Republican, is expected to join that list over the next few years.
In the short-term, a hard line on immigration can be good politics. Sandoval knocked off a sitting governor in the GOP primary, the first time that happened in Nevada. (It helped that incumbent Jim Gibbons was greatly weakened by personal scandal.) Sandoval is a strong favorite to win in November. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican whose reelection chances had been considered iffy, cruised to her party's nomination after signing the Arizona bill into law. She, too, is favored in November.
"Short-term it's an obvious benefit because the vast majority in the country favor doing something," said Matthew Dowd, President Bush's chief strategist in his 2004 reelection campaign. "In their mind, the federal government has abdicated its responsibility on immigration and proven incompetent."
But Dowd, who has worked for years to broaden the GOP appeal to Latinos, worries about the longer-term consequences. "It could feed that already existing perception that Hispanics have of Republicans, that they're intolerant and insensitive," Dowd said.
The textbook case is California's Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that sought to deny public education and other benefits to illegal immigrants and helped boost Gov. Pete Wilson to reelection. A majority of Latinos initially supported the initiative. However, by the end of an angry campaign, more than 3 in 4 Latinos voted against the initiative, which was approved but later found unconstitutional.