One of the surprises of this year's election is that the GOP has put together a stronger set of Latino candidates to run for major seats than the Democrats have. In fact, despite the traditional preference of Latino voters for the Democrats, the party has put forward no Latino candidates for governor or U.S. Senate — not one. At the same time, the Republicans have plucked three top-tier Latinos who are likely to make history on election day.
In New Mexico, Nevada and Florida, Latino Republicans in hard-fought races for governor and U.S. Senate are now the front-runners with platforms highlighting hot-button issues such as jobs, the economy, taxes, the deficit and immigration. Those are issues playing well across the political landscape, including with Latino voters who ranked the economy, jobs and education as their top concerns — with immigration a distant fifth — in a recent Pew Hispanic Center survey.
Buoyed by the Republican steamroller that is expected to take control of the House and perhaps even the Senate, Latino GOP candidates have broken through to the top in politically moderate states. They've done so despite their outspoken support for tougher anti-illegal immigration measures like the controversial Arizona law that is bitterly opposed by many Latinos.
In New Mexico, Susana Martinez, a 50-year-old county district attorney, may become the nation's first female Latino governor. She is leading Diane Denish, 61, Gov. Bill Richardson's lieutenant governor, by 10 percentage points in recent polling. Richardson, the country's sole Latino governor, is retiring. Like other conservatives, Martinez favors lower taxes, cuts in Washington spending and tough border enforcement and, like most "tea party"-backed candidates, she is antiabortion and anti-gay marriage. Her appeal to the tradition-minded and law-and-order Latino community is expected to earn her 30% of their vote, which would be an unusually high percentage for a Republican among Latinos in New Mexico.
Of course, the success of Latino Republicans does not alone tear down, or even loosen, the tight Democrat-Latino alliance. But it certainly raises questions about the assumption that Latinos robotically vote the Democratic ticket, and more important, it undermines the conventional wisdom that socially and fiscally conservative Latinos cannot win high office in predominantly Democratic states with large Latino populations. The GOP incursion into Latino territory also serves as a reminder that many Latinos, especially first- and-second-generation immigrants, tend to hold on to old-country traditions and religious dogma, expressing more conservative views than other Democrats on such issues as abortion rights and gay marriage.
In Florida, Marco Rubio, a 39-year-old son of Cuban exiles and former state legislator, leads in a competitive three-way race for the U.S. Senate. If he wins, he will become the only Latino Republican in the Senate. A tea party darling, he is ahead of U.S. Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, a black Democrat, and Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent after withdrawing from the GOP primary in light of Rubio's surging popularity. With national media attention focused tightly on this race, Florida has drawn the headliners of the campaign circuit: President Obama, former President Clinton and Sarah Palin. Rubio's lead in a recent poll is at 46% to Crist's 32% and Meek's 20%.
In Nevada, Brian Sandoval, a 47-year-old former federal judge, is projected to become that state's first Latino governor. He holds a comfortable lead over Rory Reid, the well-known son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is himself in a battle for his political life against tea party candidate Sharron Angle. A mid-October Rasmussen poll showed Sandoval leading Reid 56% to 37%.
Although Latinos make up only about 10% of the nation's electorate and turn out in fewer numbers than other voters, their participation can make or break races in states such as California and Florida, where many of the country's Latino voters reside. This year's election should send a clear message to the Democrats. The projected Latino GOP gains in Nevada, New Mexico and Florida, and in U.S. House races in Texas, Idaho and Washington state, make it clear that the Latino vote is no longer monolithic, if it ever was. If Democrats want to keep the loyalty of Latino voters, they'll have to work for it.
Luisita Lopez Torregrosa is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and a correspondent for PoliticsDaily.com.