In recession-smacked Nevada, can GOP pry Latino voters from Obama?
Obama won Nevada handily in 2008 – and captured 78 percent of the Latino vote. But in 2012 Nevada will be a battleground. Republicans see an opening, because the poor economy has hit minority groups hard.
It’s Friday night in east Las Vegas, and about 200 Hispanic high school kids are out for an evening of fun: food, dancing, performances by student mariachi bands – and Democratic politics.Skip to next paragraph
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Candidates for the US House and Senate work the hall and deliver remarks, eager to reach out to future voters at this Nevada Democratic Party-organized Latino Students United event. Any mention of the DREAM Act, legislation that offers young undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, and the crowd erupts. The organizers hold a “mock presidential caucus” – and after a raucous process, there are two winners: Enrique Iglesias and Shakira, tied with 98 votes each.
It was all in good fun, and a bit more suspenseful than the actual Nevada Democratic caucuses will be on Feb. 4. President Obama, after all, faces no competition for his party’s nomination. But the state party sees the caucuses as an opportunity to organize Democrats and recruit young voters for what is expected to be a close general election next November. Mr. Obama won Nevada handily in 2008, but today it’s a battleground. And its fast-growing Hispanic community – now 26.5 percent of the state’s population, nearly double from 10 years ago – will be crucial.
In 2008, Obama won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote nationwide, and Republicans know they need to do better – at least 40 percent – to win back the presidency. In Nevada, Obama won 78 percent of the Hispanic vote four years ago. But Republicans here see an opening. Nevada has the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the country, and minorities have been hit hard.
“The Hispanic vote is a sleeping giant,” says Marco Valera, a young aide to Republican freshman Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada who handles community outreach. “More and more, Hispanics are aware of the political power they hold.”
Mr. Valera rattles off Hispanic-oriented events Congressman Heck has done since he won his Las Vegas-area swing district last year – a tour of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce senior center, a speech at the chamber’s luncheon, a visit to a Latino supermarket, an interview in the Spanish-language El Tiempo newspaper.
Valera repeats the mantra of GOP Hispanics: that his ethnic brethren are “natural Republicans.” Hispanics are often small-business owners, and want low taxes. They care about jobs, education, safety, and family values. They are social conservatives.
René Cantú, executive director of the Latin Chamber of Commerce Community Foundation, is a recent convert to the Republican Party.
“I was a Democrat out of habit,” despite his opposition to abortion, Mr. Cantú says. The real break came over his disenchantment with Obama, who he believes is taking the Latino vote for granted and hasn’t fought hard enough for the DREAM Act. He says Obama would rather use it as a wedge issue.
His friend Alex Garza, vice chairman of the Latin chamber and also a Republican, says his party’s problem is messaging.
“We don’t do a good job of acknowledging the contributions the Latino community has given this country,” Mr. Garza says. “And we do a bad job at messaging the illegal immigration issue.”
Immigration, Garza says, is important, but in public discourse on the “Latino vote” it tends to overshadow today’s No. 1 issue, jobs. He mentions GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain’s suggestion of an electrified border fence, and cringes. Ditto the tough new law targeting illegal immigrants in Alabama.
“We’ll never make headway 'til we change the rhetoric,” Garza says.
Garza also says Republicans need to do a better job identifying rising Hispanic stars and supporting them – the way the Democrats have embraced people like Mexican-American state Sen. Ruben Kihuen (D), who is running for Nevada’s new Fourth District in Congress.