For a sense of the challenges that both parties will have in winning over Hispanic voters in 2012, look no further than New Mexico, the state with the highest percentage of Latinos in the country.
In the state’s Senate race, Democrats and Republicans are facing the likelihood of heated intraparty skirmishes, each pitting white candidates favored by the party establishment against up-and-coming Latino opponents with impressive political resumes.
Democrats are enthused about Rep. Martin Heinrich’s entrance into the race, but he now faces a challenge from state Auditor Hector Balderas, one of the youngest Hispanic statewide officeholders in the country. Republicans, meanwhile, have lined up behind former Rep. Heather Wilson, a battle-tested former congresswoman, but lieutenant governor John Sanchez is likely to challenge her for the nomination.
Despite New Mexico’s demographics, the state hasn’t elected a Hispanic senator since the 1970s. A candidate appealing to ethnic pride would have an inherent appeal.
(MORE: The Latino Voting Gap)
Winning over Hispanic voters is of critical importance to the White House, as Democrats look to take advantage of their growing numbers across the country. The party could use some Hispanic candidates sharing the ticket with Obama, and Balderas also brings law-and-order cred: he's a prosecutor who is campaigning on his record of cracking down on corruption. Republicans, fresh off electing several well-regarded Hispanic officeholders last year, need to improve their standing with Latino voters: A Hispanic Senate nominee in a key battleground would go a long way in accomplishing that. And Democrats could use some statewide Hispanic contenders to run alongside Obama, particularly given the GOP’s own impressive crop of Latino candidates in 2010.
Yet both both party establishments in New Mexico are overlooking such calculations.
Democrats: Overlooking an impressive recruit?
Democratic officials are comfortable with Heinrich, especially given his 2010 reelection in an otherwise dismal year for the party. He was endorsed by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees as a show of support just as Balderas was jumping into the primary. Balderas is a largely unproven political figure and hasn’t demonstrated he can raise funds at the levels necessary to run a big-league campaign. And Heinrich has a record of winning over Hispanics in a plurality-Hispanic seat, including defeating Republican Jon Barela (who is Latino) last year.
But the nature of the New Mexico Democratic electorate presents obstacles for Heinrich.More than half of Democratic primary voters in New Mexico are Hispanic, giving any credible Hispanic candidate an important advantage in a head-to-head campaign.
“Hispanic Democrats are going to vote for Hispanic Democrats,” said New Mexico political analyst Joe Monahan. “You’re going to have ethnic voting. An Anglo versus a Hispanic in a Democratic primary is often decided for the Hispanic.”
How Democrats handle Balderas’ candidacy will also offer some clues to their approach in courting Latinos nationally. It wouldn’t be in their interest to push aside one of their few Hispanic Senate challengers of the cycle—especially given Obama's need to post another dominant showing with Latinos nationally to compensate for his losses among white voters.
That's not a given. In its tracking poll, conducted between March 1-31, Gallup found the president’s approval rating among Latinos at 54 percent—down 19 percent from his post-election high and down 13 points from his performance in the 2008 election. Democrats carried 60 percent of the national Hispanic vote in last year’s midterms, according to exit polls, down nine points from 2006.
In national polling, Latinos rank the economy as the top issue in the country—even ahead of immigration—and they’ve been bearing the brunt of the recession. Many are also dissatisfied with Democrats for not pursuing immigration reforms aggressively enough, despite encouraging rhetoric.
And while Republicans were touting up-and-coming Hispanic candidates for Senate and governor like Marco Rubio in Florida, Brian Sandoval in Nevada, and Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Democrats came up empty-handed in 2010, not nominating a single Hispanic candidate for those offices. Party leaders are snubbing another Hispanic candidate this year, preferring Rep. Shelley Berkley over up-and-coming Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto in the Nevada Senate race.
Senate Democratic strategists are fully aware of the need to recruit Hispanics, and the DSCC has been courting retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez to run for the Senate in Texas—another state with a significant and fast-growing Latino vote.
Republicans: Missing a golden opportunity
Most of New Mexico's Republican officeholders quickly lined up behind Wilson, a moderate congresswoman who has proven her political mettle by winning a Democratic-leaning House seat five times—even in down years for her party—until she gave it up in 2008 to make an unsuccessful bid to win her party's Senate nomination. GOP leaders view Sanchez as a less-reliable political commodity—hearkening back to his underwhelming 2002 gubernatorial campaign against Bill Richardson—and believe that his conservative views will make it more challenging for the GOP to win in a swing state.
The GOP's more fundamental problem with Hispanic voters: A party base whose strident rhetoric on immigration has hurt the GOP brand with Latinos. Nominating immigration hardliners in Nevada and Colorado last year didn’t help the party in those pivotal Senate races, both won by Democrats.
But recent history has shown that Hispanic nominees, even those taking a fairly conservative position on immigration, can perform respectably with Hispanic voters. Last year, Rubio won a majority of the Hispanic vote in Florida, Sandoval ran (narrowly) ahead of Sharron Angle with Latinos, and Martinez carried 38 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polling. Identity can often trump ideology.
And, if there was a lesson from Rubio’s primary campaign against Charlie Crist, it may be that backing an establishment Anglo with a centrist record against a Hispanic conservative with real potential is not a smart strategy.
That’s what makes the New Mexico Senate primaries so consequential and worth watching as the races develop. Party establishments, by definition, like to play things safe—and with Wilson and Heinrich, there won’t be any surprises. But in 2012, thanks to a changing electorate, the party that rolls the dice and takes a risk on some new faces may very well be in better position to capitalize.
This article appears in the April 27, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.