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2010 Elections Set Milestone in Hispanic Politics

Latinos make a difference in key races; Hispanic candidates extend their reach

En español | Latinos’ votes saved a few endangered Democrats and helped create a new GOP star in Florida. The nation's first Latina governor also was elected. And Hispanic candidates — some running as Republicans — won political races in places Latinos had never sought office before.

In many ways, the 2010 elections set a new milestone in Hispanic politics.

The election featured “one of the largest numbers of viable Latino candidates" ever to seek office, according to Rosalind Gold, of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “Hispanic candidates were able to raise money and they were strategic: They knew what races to run for,” adds Gold, NALEO’s senior director of policy, research and advocacy.

The number of Hispanics casting early ballots was up by 13 percent compared to the 2006 midterm election.

Latinos vied for top offices in 40 states, extending their reach from states that are heavily Hispanic, like California, Florida and New Mexico, to places where they are an emerging population, such as the Deep South, Midwest and New England. As a result of the election, there are more Latinos in statewide office and it’s likely their numbers have increased in state legislatures, Gold says. Those results should be clear in the next few days.

“Riding the Crest of the Republican Tide”

There’s another indication of the political maturity and increased ideological diversity of the Latino community: As the GOP gained strength, wresting control of the U.S. House of Representatives and winning new Senate seats and governorships, a number of those swept into office were Republican Latinos. “Latinos were riding the crest of the Republican tide that washed over the nation,” Gold says, noting that some of the Republican Latinos ran and won in districts without Hispanic majorities.

In Congress, several Hispanic lawmakers lost their seats, including Reps. John Salazar, D-Col., and Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas. But Latinos maintained their numbers in the House because voters elected several Hispanic Republicans, including San Antonio businessman Francisco “Quico” Canseco, who defeated Rodriguez, and David Rivera, who won an open seat in South Florida.

Also in Texas, Republican businessman Bill Flores, 56, defeated longtime U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, a Democrat. Jaime Herrera, 31, a former House aide and Republican state legislator, won an open House seat in Washington state, becoming the first Hispanic to serve in Congress from that state. Another Republican, Raul Labrador, 42, who was born in Puerto Rico, defeated U.S. Rep. Walter Minnick to represent the state of Idaho in Congress.

And in Florida, Republican Cuban American Marco Rubio, 39, won a U.S. Senate seat. As a new star in the GOP firmament, Rubio is already being touted as a possible vice presidential candidate for 2012. And he’s not hiding from his roots. As he said in his victory speech, “No matter where I go, whatever title I may achieve, I will always be the son of exiles.”

When it came to statewide office, another Hispanic Republican scored a huge victory in Nevada: Attorney General Brian Sandoval, 47, was elected his state’s first Hispanic governor, by a margin of 53 percent to 41 percent.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, Pete Dominguez Jr., 52, helped make history with his vote. He cast his ballot for District Attorney Susana Martinez, a Republican who will become the nation’s first Latina governor.

Like many midterm voters, Dominguez, who helps run a family carpet business, says concern about the economy shaped his decision to vote for Martinez, who he thinks will do more for small businesses than retiring Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat. “Anything is better than what we’ve had,” Dominguez says.

Staying the Democratic Course

But most Latino voters appear to continue favoring Democratic candidates.

Political research firm Latino Decisions conducted an election-eve poll of likely Hispanic voters in eight states with large Latino populations and determined they bucked this year’s trend toward the GOP. “It was the largest [Latino] vote for Democrats of any election,” says pollster Matt Barreto, a professor of political science at the University of Washington.

In Nevada, Barreto’s poll showed that 90 percent of Latino voters supported U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, helping the Senate’s top Democrat keep his seat in a brutal race against Republican Sharron Angle, the Tea Party favorite. Barreto calls the influence of Hispanics’ votes in Reid’s race “historic.” Latinos were influential in a number of other races, too, he says.

In California, the Latino Decisions poll found that Hispanics gave 86 percent of their support to Democrats Jerry Brown, the state’s new governor-elect, and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who won a tough battle for reelection against Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO.

Brown’s Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, former eBay CEO, lost support among Latinos because of her hard line on immigration, which included banning undocumented students from public colleges and universities, according to Lisa García Bedolla, chair of the Center for Latino Policy Research at the University of California, Berkeley. “People became aware of what her policies were,” García Bedolla says.

Latino support of Democrats did not extend to Florida, however. Although 62 percent of Florida’s Hispanics voted for Rubio, according to the Latino Decisions poll, Barreto says that support came almost entirely from Cuban Americans, who are more likely than other Hispanics to vote Republican. But Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, predicts Rubio will become part of the Republican Party’s “master plan to make inroads into the Hispanic community” and reverse Latino voters’ increasing loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Latino Turnout

Before the midterm, several polls indicated that Latinos — who voted in record numbers in 2008 — were not motivated to go to the polls this year.

An accurate count of Latino turnout will take some time. But the number of Hispanics casting early ballots was up by 13 percent compared to the 2006 midterm election. And NALEO’s Gold says calls to her organization’s election hotline increased sharply in the days leading up to the election.

“We definitely saw a strong interest among Latino voters,” she says.

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