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.

Isaac Brekken/AP/File
In this August 2008 file photo, a Spanish version of a Nevada voter registration form is seen in Las Vegas. In Nevada, Obama won 78 percent of Latino voters in 2008. But Republicans here see an opening in 2012.

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.

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.

That race has caused some upset in Democratic ranks, because former Rep. Dina Titus (D) of Nevada is also running for the seat. Hispanic Democrats are worried Ms. Titus could prevent Las Vegas Hispanics from electing one of their own to Congress. Furthermore, if state Senator Kihuen loses to her in the primary, that could depress Hispanic turnout in the general, which would hurt Obama and Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) in her bid for the Senate.

Still, it’s the Republicans who face an uphill battle with Hispanic voters. True, a year ago Nevadans elected a Hispanic Republican governor, Brian Sandoval. But he got only 33 percent of the Hispanic vote.  

Then there are the unforced errors that make the Republicans’ task that much harder. Last month, Sen. Dean Heller (R) received negative headlines when he pulled out of a roundtable meeting with the Latin Chamber of Commerce at the last minute after learning that a staffer for his opponent, Congresswoman Berkley, was present.

But when it comes to attracting young Latino voters, the biggest hurdle Republicans face may well be the DREAM Act. First introduced in 2001, the legislation would grant conditional permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as minors, complete US high school, and fulfill two years of college or military service. Opponents, mostly Republicans, call it an amnesty program that encourages illegal immigration. To supporters, it represents a way for the US to take advantage of the talents of young immigrants who, through no fault of their own, face limited opportunities because of their status.

Former Nevada Gov. Robert List (R) feels the issue deeply. In an interview, Mr. List describes a family friend, a young man who excelled in high school and wants to become a doctor. But he is undocumented, and therefore cannot get scholarship money to attend state university in Nevada. For now, he’s working in a clothing store, pondering his options – including returning to the country he left as an infant, Mexico, where his mother fears the violence.

“It just breaks your heart,” says List, the Republican national committeeman from Nevada.

Ask List what the answer is on illegal immigrants, and he sighs. “It’s a major dilemma that we have to deal with not through some kind of television mass-media ad campaign to persuade them that we care,” says List, who supported the comprehensive immigration reform that is now dormant in Congress. “A lot of it is person to person, expressing our support and helping them weave through the thicket.”

Back at the Democrats’ Latino youth event in east Las Vegas, it’s not hard to see why these high school students will likely start their voting lives as Democrats. Their teachers organize Hispanic student groups at their schools, and can’t help but convey their political perspective.

Francisco Morales, just a couple of years out of Rancho High School in Las Vegas, works the room as the Latino outreach and caucus organizer for the Nevada Democratic Party. “Last year,” says his former teacher, Isaac Barron, “half these kids went out for Harry Reid,” the Nevada Democratic senator who won an improbable reelection victory last year.

Debbie Rios, a senior at Rancho High and president of the school’s Hispanic Student Union, remembers well the visit to her club last year by Senator Reid’s Republican opponent, Sharron Angle – the one where Ms. Angle took heat over campaign ads that portrayed illegal immigrants as dark-skinned thugs, and commented that some of the students looked Asian. The YouTube video of the meeting went viral.

Democrats are more for Latinos,” says Ms. Rios. Her issues? “The DREAM Act and immigration.” 

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