Schaffer’s Latino voter strategy could bring Election Day peril

Joined by state GOP heavyweights, Bob Schaffer accepts the U.S. Senate race nomination at the Colorado Republican Party convention. (Photo/Bob Spencer)
Joined by state GOP heavyweights, Bob Schaffer accepts the U.S. Senate nomination at the Colorado Republican Party convention. (Photo/Bob Spencer)

With Republican power elite connections and a conservative voting record that served him well while in the GOP-dominated 4th Congressional District, Republican Bob Schaffer has never had to heavily campaign among a number of different voting blocks in an election. But one growing block that Schaffer has not courted while battling Democratic Rep. Mark Udall for the U.S. Senate seat could end up making all the difference: the Latino vote.

As the Denver Post noted, a group of influential Republican Latinos met with Schaffer early in his campaign to discuss his strategy for outreach to one of the state’s fastest-growing voting demographics. At the time, the Hispanic leaders advised him to hire Latino staffers, to connect with the Hispanic population and to make himself available for events in the Latino community. According to The Post, Schaffer, who started his political career in the state House before serving three terms in the U.S. Congress, said: “I’ve never campaigned like that. I consider myself to be an American first.”

“I think it’s a matter of how many resources you have to work with; that is the big factor,” said Bob Martinez, the former Colorado GOP chairman, about Schaffer’s campaign strategy. “The key thing is to get your message out to the general population as broadly as you can, and some of the reason the Schaffer campaign has taken the approach they have is because they don’t have the fund raising available that the Udall campaign does.”

Bob Schaffer speaks during a debate with Mark Udall in Denver. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
Bob Schafferspeaks during a debate with Mark Udall in Denver. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

Since beginning his campaign, Schaffer has attended some Latino-targeted events and has been talking with Latino community leaders, but has relied mostly on his policy standpoints and overall message to attract voters of all demographics.

Martinez, who is not directly involved with Schaffer’s campaign, said he believes Republicans stand a good chance of attracting Latino voters this year and that just because Schaffer hasn’t employed the same cohesive strategy to woo the demographic that John McCain and Barack Obama have, it doesn’t automatically mean the Fort Collins Republican isn’t an appealing choice for Hispanic voters in Colorado.

“Just because they made a decision that they aren’t going to segregate (their campaign) into the different communities and that they were going to run on that what is good for America is good for everybody doesn’t mean they aren’t doing outreach and talking about Hispanic issues,” Martinez said. “Education is No. 1 issue within the Hispanic community because most people realize that when you are educated in the world market today, you will have the skills to get a job. That is where I think Bob Schaffer has an edge because he has been very involved in the education arena and he has fought the unions and worked to bring options to Colorado families. I think that is something the Hispanic population can get behind.”

The race between Schaffer and Udall to replace the retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard continues to poll surprisingly close in the waning weeks of the election. In a campaign that many believed would be a cakewalk for Udall, Schaffer has been able to keep within striking distance despite early news reports pointing to Schaffer ties with the consulting firm of the now jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his questionable work to secure oil deals in Iraq for a former employer. The close race has attracted millions of dollars of outside spending by independent groups to the benefit and pain of both sides.

The race has been extraordinarily high-profile in recent weeks, inviting a barrage of television and radio advertising and frequent debate appearances between the candidates — 16 before Election Day. The attention, as well as the close polling among likely voters, has garnered a national audience and clearly signaled the importance of the race for both parties, making the growing Latino demographic an even bigger factor.

The number of Latino voters in the United States is increasing at a faster rate than almost every other voting demographic in the country. During the 1988 presidential election, Hispanics accounted for 3.7 million votes. By 2004 that number had grown to 7.5 million. In Colorado the 2004 election attracted a record number of Hispanic voters, who ultimately accounted for 8 percent of the statewide vote. Estimates this year by both parties say 2008 could be the first time Latino voters in Colorado make up more than 10 percent of the state’s ballots.

Mark Udall speaks during a debate with Bob Schaffer in Denver. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
Mark Udall speaks during a debate with Bob Schaffer in Denver. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

Udall, although criticized by some for running a campaign that seems lackluster at times, appears to have taken the same advice the GOP Latino leaders offered Schaffer. Udall, a four-term congressman from Eldorado Springs, has employed a large outreach effort targeting Latino voters in recent months, has employed Latino staff members, has generated voter information campaigns specifically tailored for the Latino population and has attended many Hispanic community events throughout the campaign.

Despite the campaigns’ efforts to court the Latino vote, or lack thereof, one political expert said Democrats will most likely gain 65-68 percent of the Latino vote, no matter what each candidate does. “What’s most likely going to happen is the Latinos are going to vote as they have traditionally in the past — which is primarily for the Democrats,” said Anna Sampaio, a political science professor at the University of Colorado-Denver who focuses on Latino issues in politics. The Latino voting bloc is interested in improving education, securing affordable housing and having a well-run economy — political issues the Democrats have political currency in today.

“Education tends to be the issue that is at the top of the list, with the economy and the war in Iraq following it up,” Sampaio said. “Of course immigration is important, but it’s not the top issue Latino voters are looking at. They are interested in policy areas that can help them raise their families and have a comfortable way of life.”

But, as Martinez, the GOP chair, said, the importance of education to Hispanic voters could be the ace in the hole for Schaffer, who is a sitting member on the Colorado State Board of Education and a well-known charter-school proponent who sat on the Committee for Education and Labor while in Congress. Although unpopular with most Democrats and teachers’ unions, the charter school movement in Colorado has benefited some Latino neighborhoods by opening schools specifically tailored to Hispanic students.

“I think a lot of young Hispanics are realizing the value of working within the system, getting jobs, getting an education and advancing themselves,” Martinez said. “I think if you start to look at what is important to Hispanics and where the candidates stand on those issues, the Republicans and Bob Schaffer stand a good chance at getting votes.”

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