It's a breezy day in this Dallas exurb, and Victor Morales, the Democratic Senate candidate from Texas, is fielding questions from community college students. Eduardo, a Mexican-American, asks Mr. Morales about student loans. Their conversation is unremarkable, except for one thing: It's transpiring in Spanish.
The moment says a lot about the future of US politics. Morales is the first Latino nominated to represent a major party in a Senate race, and he owes most of his primary win margin to heavy turnout in Hispanic areas.
Although Latinos have not shown a consistent ability to sway big elections, that may be changing. Surging populations, high-profile debates about immigration policy, and a massive voter-registration effort have energized the nation's Hispanic electorate.
If Hispanics turn out to vote in big numbers, it could change the tenor of debate from Sacramento, Calif., to Capitol Hill, and ensure that Morales won't be the last to stump in two languages.
"The idea that a Latino can run in a large state and be a somewhat viable candidate means Latinos are arriving politically," says Lisa Montoya, a political science professor at the University of Texas. "It suggests they can be acceptable crossover candidates and represent a political area that's more heterogeneous."
Indeed, all signs indicate that Latinos are poised to play a leading role in American political life. Of the 25 million Latinos nationwide, more than 50 percent are between the ages of 18 and 34, and another large chunk are children. Also, more than 1 million Hispanics will become naturalized citizens this year, and the Southwest Voters Project, a San Antonio nonprofit group, has registered 5.5 million Latinos in the last two years. As many as 100,000 Hispanics turned out for a rally in Washington last week.
Yet the question remains: Will they vote? In past years, Latino turnout has been low relative to the Hispanic population. That's due in part to the large number of minors and noncitizens in their midst, but outside factors like low education levels and a language barrier have conspired to keep many at home on election days.
Since 1994, however, a torrent of legislation aimed at immigrants has heightened political awareness in the Latino community and galvanized many political groups. First there was California's Proposition 187, which proposed denying many state benefits to illegal immigrants. This year's welfare-reform law contains provisions limiting benefits to immigrants, and a Republican-led effort to establish English as the nation's official language further enraged many Latino voters.
"People are coming forward in large numbers because they want to vote," says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "They've been taken aback by welfare reform, Proposition 187, and wholesale attacks on immigrants..... They're saying: 'I pay taxes and I'm not going to take this.' "
According to Mr. Vargas, this sentiment spells trouble for the Republican Party nationwide. As the chief proponents of most legislation and ballot initiatives that would cut benefits to immigrants, he says, Republicans won some short-term battles and secured the "anti-Latino vote," but blew an opportunity to harness a powerful new political force - especially in California, where 1 out of every 3 voters is Hispanic.
ALTHOUGH the majority of Hispanic members of Congress are Democrats, many Republicans have argued for years that most Latinos are inherently conservative.
There is some evidence to support this. Most polls indicate that Hispanics support Republican positions on issues like abortion, school prayer, and law enforcement.
According to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, there are 650,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in the US. As a result, observers say, Hispanics tend to have closer ties to the typically Republican small-business community than to Democratic-controlled institutions like labor unions and the public sector. "When Latinos move toward middle-class status," Professor Montoya says, "they're much more likely to vote Republican."
By all accounts, the Latino community is not monolithic. According to Joel Kotkin, a political scientist at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., Latino voters in three immigrant-rich states - California, Florida, and Texas - differ in political character.
The Texas Latino community is mostly Mexican, and a majority of the state's Hispanics are third- or fourth-generation Americans, many of whom live in poverty. In California, 80 percent of Hispanics are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who came to America after 1970. In Florida, Cubans are the dominant Latino group, and they tend to be staunch Republicans.
Yet Democrats seem to have an edge. More Hispanics identify themselves as Democrats, and a recent study showed that Latino household incomes are slipping in relation to other minority groups - a fact that suggests fewer are reaching the income threshold at which they gravitate to the GOP.
In some ways, the Texas Senate race backs this up. According to some estimates, fully half of the voters in the Democratic primary were Latinos, and nearly 90 percent of those voters backed Morales over the state party's designated candidate, Texas Rep. John Bryant. Yet even if Morales benefits from heavy Hispanic turnout, he is unlikely to beat GOP incumbent Sen. Phil Gramm.