For a peek at Republicans’ long-term prospects, look no further than three critical Senate contests in the Southwest. One leans Republican (Arizona), one is a true toss-up (Nevada), and the third tilts Democratic (New Mexico).
All will provide insight on a pressing question facing the GOP: Can it make inroads with the region’s Hispanic population?
It’s one of the biggest concerns for Republican strategists, with exit poll data showing whites making up a declining share of the electorate (down to 74 percent in 2008, from 81 percent in 2000), and Hispanics as the fastest-growing demographic.
Winning two out of these three would show they can compete in Hispanic battlegrounds. But if they can’t attract minorities, they face a challenging road.
Nevada. GOP Sen. John Ensign’s decision to retire was good for Republicans, but this is still a favorable opportunity for Democrats. GOP struggles here are directly tied to the party’s poor showing with Hispanics.
Census figures illustrate why. Hispanics make up 26.5 percent of the population, and they have grown a whopping 82 percent in the last decade. It’s why Obama comfortably carried the state by 12 points even though he lost the white vote, winning over 76 percent of Hispanics. The White House and its allies seeking to repeat that performance next year will be aided by a fierce statewide Democratic ground game.
This is Democrats’ best chance at picking up a Republican seat, and they have a deep bench: Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, Secretary of State Ross Miller, Treasurer Kate Marshall, and Rep. Shelley Berkley. Masto could be the toughest. She could bring in national Hispanic money and has a good profile as the state’s top cop. Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), who is Hispanic, should help the GOP with Hispanic outreach. But Rep. Dean Heller, the GOP front-runner, represents the least-diverse part of the state. He was secretary of State for 12 years but still has low name-identification. And he has tacked to the right on immigration since being elected to the House, making it more challenging for him to win over Hispanic voters.
New Mexico. Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s retirement turned a solid Democratic seat into a hot contest. Former Rep. Heather Wilson (R), who announced her candidacy on Monday, is the early establishment favorite. She’s a Rhodes scholar, Air Force officer, and centrist who has won before in a Democratic district.
She’s also a familiar face at a time when the GOP electorate has been favoring conservative outsiders. Waiting in the wings is Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, an up-and-comer who is also considering the race. Establishment types privately fear he’s too conservative and untested to win over a Democratic-leaning electorate, but he has the profile to give Wilson trouble.
“The danger for her is that the political class are very much enamored with the idea of her running, but there may be a disconnect here. We’ve seen this story before,” said New Mexico political analyst Joe Monahan.
One New Mexico GOP strategist argued that Sanchez, as a Hispanic, could provide a more appealing contrast to the early Democratic favorites, Rep. Martin Heinrich, an Anglo, and former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who lost last year’s governor’s race to Susana Martinez.
National conservative rabble-rousers are involved already. RedState’s Erick Erickson has written that keeping Wilson out of the Senate “will be the next great noble cause for conservatives.”
Political strategists prefer the familiar to the untested, and Wilson’s record is solid. But if Republicans want to appeal to Hispanics, nominating Sanchez would go a long way.
Arizona. Republicans hold the stronger cards in trying to replace Sen. Jon Kyl (R), given the party’s voter registration edge. Rep. Jeff Flake (R) is a solid general election candidate, with fiscal-conservative bona fides.
The bigger challenge is whether the GOP’s activist base considers Flake too liberal on immigration, the state’s biggest issue. Flake has backed a comprehensive approach, and the base might get behind a hardliner instead. Rep. Trent Franks is considering running, and would likely challenge Flake on immigration.
Tough immigration stances have helped Arizona Republicans so far. But with the Hispanic population growing fast, it’s a questionable long-term strategy.
The Hispanic population here is estimated at 31 percent, according to the 2009 American Community Survey, up from 25.3 percent in 2000. Gov. Jan Brewer’s victory last year was closer than expected, due largely to her anemic 28 percent showing among Hispanics. If Arizona Republicans don’t improve on that, they face big challenges.
Nationally in 2010, the GOP had an uneven record with Hispanics. In races where Republicans were perceived as tough on immigrants, Hispanics were a major factor, according to exit polls. Just ask Sharron Angle (who won only 30 percent of Hispanics in the Nevada Senate race) and Meg Whitman (who won just 31 percent of Hispanics in the California governor’s race).
Hispanic Republican candidates scored some impressive victories, though. In Florida, now-Sen. Marco Rubio took 55 percent of the Latino vote in a three-way contest.
In New Mexico, Martinez got 38 percent of the Hispanic vote. And five Hispanic Republicans were elected to the House in 2010, including two who ousted Democrats in Texas.
The lesson: Republicans have shown they can compete for the Hispanic vote with the right message and the right candidates. But they also have shown they could easily squander their opportunities. The question: Which path will they take in 2012?
This article appears in the March 9, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.