'06 Latino Vote May Spell Trouble for GOP
The appointment of Florida Sen. Mel Martinez as the new leader of the Republican National Committee in part reflects an acknowledgment by the party of the dramatic shift toward Democrats in Latino voting patterns this year: Although between 40 and 44 percent of Latinos voted for President Bush in 2004, almost 70 percent of Hispanic voters cast their lot for Democrats last week, according to exit polls.
Pollster Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network says the loss of Hispanic support could represent "a game-changing shift for Republicans" heading into the 2008 elections. The apparent trend could be particularly troubling in four states with significant numbers of Latino voters: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. The four, which Bush carried in 2004, have 29 electoral votes.
This year's shift came despite GOP progress made under Bush. Karl Rove, the architect of the president's 2000 and 2004 victories, has long courted Hispanic voters, arguing that their Catholic social moreswhich often push them to oppose abortion and gay marriagemake them just the kind of "value voters" that can be lured by Republicans.
Immigration advocates, however, say the party was hurt by the immigration debate this year in the House, where Republicans voted for a largely punitive immigration measure that would make it a felony to be in the United States illegally. The measure also offers no path to citizenship or legalization for the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country.
Several vulnerable Republicans, including Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, repeatedly emphasized in their campaigns that they opposed paths to legalizationor "amnesty." Both lost, as did a collection of Republicans in the House who were among the most vocal members calling for dramatically stepped-up immigration enforcementArizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth and Indiana Rep. John Hostettler.
"If anything, this issue backfired when they attempted to use it to gain a conservative edge," says pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners. "It helped mobilize voters on the other side."
Pollsters eyeing the results say the most profound effect of the 2006 election could be shifting voting patterns in the West, where almost a third of the Hispanic population resides. Democrats picked up a governor's seat in Colorado and a Senate seat in Montana, and they solidly held on to the governorship in Arizona. In the Tucson area, a seat that borders Mexicoheld for 22 years by retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbewas captured by a moderate Democrat, former state Sen. Gabrielle Giffords. With an eye toward the West, Democrats are considering staging their next presidential convention in Denver.
"I think we'll see Arizona return to the swing state category," predicts Peter Brodnitz, another pollster who has closely followed the immigration issue. Arizona, which was closely contested in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections, comfortably went for Bush in 2004.
Some Hispanics have argued that the shift could be relatively permanent, similar to what happened in California after the state voted to pass Proposition 187 in 1994, a measure supported by many Republicans that would have restricted illegal immigrants' access to education and healthcare. In 1996, roughly 71 percent of Hispanics there voted to support President Bill Clinton. That pattern has largely held.
The trick for Martinez will be to put a nice face on the Republican Party for Hispanics. If Sen. John McCain is the Republican nominee for president in 2008, that could help as well, especially since he has been one of the architects of immigration reform with a guest-worker plan, working closely with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy. But he could face troubles in the primary because about a fourth of his primary voters favor more punitive immigration reforms.