Why GOP struggles to make inroads with California Hispanics

A new poll shows that Republican candidates for governor and Senate in California are still far behind their Democratic opponents among Hispanic voters.

By , Staff writer

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    California Republican Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman visited a Latino business in South Gate, Calif., on June 24.
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A new poll suggests that Republicans in California have made little progress in making inroads into America's fastest growing voting bloc: Latinos.

Results of the poll show the problem could cost them in California races for Senate and the governor's office.

In the race for US Senate, Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer holds a 38-point lead over Republican Carly Fiorina among Latino voters, according to a Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll released over the weekend.

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The same poll shows Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown enjoying a 19-point margin over Republican challenger Meg Whitman. Experts and activists say the Republican stance on immigration is to blame.

“This is a reaction from the Latino community to the positions the GOP has taken on immigration,” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO). “That is what is really causing Latino support for GOP candidates to suffer.”

California Republicans were hoping that the memories of 1994's Prop. 187, the measure denying education and social services to illegal immigrants, which Republican Gov. Pete Wilson backed, were well behind them. "But it looks increasingly like the risk of alienating Latino electorates is for a long time to come,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, who studies immigration patterns and demographics at the University of California, Riverside.

Hector Barajas, spokesman for Meg Whitman, refutes this analysis. The campaign has set up offices in heavily Latino communities of East Los Angeles, Chula Vista, and Fresno, and has employed bilingual phone callers. Mr. Brown has yet to air a Spanish-language commercial, he says.

“The Field Poll of last week shows Meg Whitman at 40 percent among Latinos, and this new USC poll has us at 35-37 percent,” he says. “Historically GOP candidates have only had about 30-32 percent. I think we are doing quite well.”

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said the finding that Whitman was only behind Brown by 3 percent among Latinos was one of his poll’s surprises last week. Several analysts say the two polls don’t jibe with one another because the Field Poll sample of 100 Latinos was so much smaller than the USC poll's sample of 400.

“I think the Field poll of only 100 respondents is very low and possibly not adequate for a clear statewide generalization,” says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at USC. “I think they may have undersampled while the USC poll possibly oversampled a bit.”

It may not be too late for either Whitman or Fiorina to turn things around with Latinos in the two key California races this year, say analysts. As businesswomen focusing heavily on jobs creation, both might appeal to Latino entrepreneurs if they can spell their agendas out carefully enough.

This problem of Latino rejection of the GOP “is ironic because Latinos are more conservative than most Democrats and may actually agree with Republicans on many issues,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “When the anti-immigrant feelings ebb … Latinos will become much more amenable to Republican candidates.”

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