Republican Susana Martinez of New Mexico became the country's first… (William Faulkner, Associated…)
Early this year, Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez made history. He became Nevada's first Latino governor. In New Mexico, she became the country's first Latina governor.
Just as striking as their breakthrough is their party affiliation: Both are Republicans.
For many in the GOP, the twin victories last November, along with the election of Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida, marked an important step in efforts to mend the party's frayed ties with Latino voters, which have suffered over the last several years of hard-line talk on immigration.
For Democrats, the election of the three was something else: a warning sign at a time when Latino support has grown increasingly vital to the party's success, especially in the battleground states of the Rocky Mountains and desert Southwest.
Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Michael Bennet of Colorado each withstood the 2010 Republican wave thanks in good part to Latino support. President Obama is counting on strong Latino turnout to hold on to Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico — states he won in the last White House race — and to expand the 2012 competition to Arizona and, maybe, Texas and Georgia.
"The Republicans, by electing three national Latino leaders, have really challenged the Democratic Party," said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, until recently one of the highest-ranking Latino Democrats in the country.
"Democrats have to recruit more Latino candidates and they have to start siding with Latinos on redistricting and other issues," Richardson said, "because many Latinos perceive that the party doesn't care enough about electing more Hispanic officials."
Richardson's concerns were echoed by Latino lawmakers, political activists and campaign strategists across the country. To them, the Democratic Party — while benefitting from a surge in Latino votes — has, in particular, not done enough to help Latino candidates move from city council, legislative and congressional seats to the party's highest elected offices.
Money is one reason. Many Latinos represent less affluent, more geographically concentrated areas that fail to provide the fundraising base that white politicians have. Boosting Latino candidates requires patience and a grooming process that Democrats have not often undertaken, critics say, pointing to Senate races next year in three key states as an example.
In Nevada and Arizona, they note, there is no credible Latino Democrat running. In New Mexico, state Auditor Hector Balderas is scrambling for traction in a primary against Rep. Martin Heinrich, who started the race as the perceived favorite of the party establishment.
"The Democrats really haven't shown a willingness or any creativity in identifying Latino talent and moving it forward," said Margaret Montoya, a University of New Mexico administrator and a Balderas supporter. "Martin Heinrich is a reliable progressive vote. Hector is a vote, a voice and a face of the future."
Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, said the party recognized the importance of recruiting and supporting Latino candidates and was staying neutral in New Mexico's primary after sending early signals in favor of Heinrich.
He pointed out that the party helped recruit Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to run for Senate in Texas in 2012, though he is very much an underdog, given the state's Republican leanings.
The discontent among Latinos is a matter of degree.
The overwhelming majority of elected Latinos belong to the Democratic Party, and most Latino voters tend to favor Democrats over Republicans up and down the ballot. Even as they won their governor races, Sandoval and Martinez failed to capture a majority of the Latino vote in their states. Any GOP gains among Latinos are likely to narrow the gap, not reverse it.
And even as the recent election results buoy Republicans, factions within the party continue to fight over immigration, pitting supporters of an enforcement-only approach against those who want to combine strict laws with a pathway to citizenship — as President George W. Bush favored — for millions who are living illegally in the country but paying taxes and keeping out of trouble.
Florida's Rubio, one of the Republican's brightest prospects, has felt the tensions. Critics say he talked tough on immigration while running for Senate last year, but has yet to follow through after being elected. "He wants to have it both ways," George Fuller, a "tea party" activist in Sarasota, Fla., told the Miami Herald. "We're going to be zeroing in on him like a laser."
Still, at the very least, the election of high-profile Latino Republicans in three key states gives the GOP an opportunity to move away from the more heated rhetoric of the national party, a first step toward boosting support among Latinos and possibly tipping those states in 2012. Martinez will be the featured speaker Monday night at an Orange County Republican Party dinner in Irvine.