Colorado’s Latino voters could be key in run to the White House

In Colorado and a handful of other swing states, the Hispanic vote is expected to be a key factor in this year’s presidential election. As Republican campaign rhetoric around immigration has continued to turn off many Latino voters, some GOP strategists are suggesting the eventual Republican nominee can appeal to Hispanics by focusing on economic issues.

Romney aide Alberto Martinez told Bloomberg that Hispanic voters will vote for Romney because Romney has “the best plan to improve the economy.”

In Colorado, some Republicans are taking that line while others say the party is dreaming if it thinks the eventual nominee can get a mulligan on immigration simply by talking about the economy.

The New York Times
on Friday had a front page story about GOP efforts to appeal to Hispanic voters in Colorado and other swing states with an economy-first message.

PUEBLO, Colo. — For many years, and multiple election cycles, Republicans talked about the growing Hispanic vote in America like moonstruck, misunderstood boys at a high school dance. They could not connect, despite believing that they shared much in common, especially with socially conservative, religious Hispanic voters who would one day realize how charming Republicans could be.

Now, with the Hispanic vote poised to become a deciding factor in several crucial swing states, Republican leaders think they have found a fresh approach — an appeal to Hispanics’ growing distress over the sluggish economic recovery…

“Illegal immigration is on the back burner. The DREAM Act is on the back burner. American Hispanics are concerned about the lint in their wallets. I used to have dollars in my wallet; now I have change. Hispanics are concerned about the broken economy and they are concerned about jobs. People are skittish about investing in America and that won’t change until we get Obama out of the White House,” said Martin Mendez, executive director of the newly formed Colorado Hispanic Republicans.

Back burner may be relative. It was just a couple of weeks ago that Mendez spent the better part of an hour bashing the Colorado Asset Bill, a state-version of the DREAM Act, on the Mike Rosen show.

Many, though, are skeptical that a focus on the economy will help Republicans in Colorado’s Latino communities.

Federico Pena weighs in

“I think President Obama will get a higher percentage of Latino votes this time than he got four years ago,” Obama For America Co-Chair Federico Pena told The Colorado Independent.

“This time they do not have a candidate as good as John McCain. Their terrible rhetoric on immigration is driving people away from the GOP and so they are trying to pivot away from that and talk about jobs, but it won’t work,” Pena said. Pena is a former mayor of Denver and former secretary of transportation.

Obama For America Co-Chair Federico Pena (Image courtesy of Pena)

Pena said the economy and jobs are the number one issues for all Americans, not just for Hispanics. After the economy, he said health care and education are the most important issues for Latinos.

“President Obama has created four million new jobs and the economy has had 20-some straight months of growth. When people go to the polls in November they are going to see an economy that is improving,” Pena said. “When they ask themselves, ‘does the GOP have a better economic strategy?’ the answer is going to be ‘no’,” Pena said.

Immigration rhetoric looms large

It isn’t just partisan Democrats like Pena who think the GOP will have a hard time getting Hispanic voters to forget about immigration.

Steven Rodriguez, national vice president of Somos Republicans and a former Pueblo city councilman, agrees that the economy is the most important issue, but says the Republican candidates in the race don’t seem to have much to say about the economy but instead seem unduly focused on immigration and other racially tinged issues.

“Santorum is in Puerto Rico talking about English-only, and that has nothing to do with the economy,” Rodriguez said. “Romney is trying to create a race war, but neither one of them is talking about the economy. Before they can appeal to Hispanic voters on economic issues, they have to stop the race baiting. They have to stop demonizing people.”

Rodriguez said Romney is tracking at 8 percent support among Hispanic voters. “I don’t see that changing,” he said. Other polls have Romney as high as 13 percent against Obama among Hispanics.

Steven Rodriguez (Image courtesy of Rodriguez)

“Will Romney deport grandma and grandpa like he says he will? Just running ads in Spanish isn’t going to do it. He and Santorum both have to quit pandering to Kris Kobach and his group. It’s getting real ugly and I don’t think they can win the Hispanic vote by pandering to the far right,” Rodriguez said.

Kobach, Kansas secretary of state, is a leading advocate of Arizona/Alabama style immigration laws.

“The economy is important to everyone, not just to minorities,” Rodriguez added.

“It’s getting real ugly and I don’t think they can win the Hispanic vote by pandering to the far right.”

From The New York Times again:

This year, it (the Hispanic vote) is expected to be even more important, especially as the Hispanic populations have risen substantially in several swing states — places like Colorado and Nevada, where generations of political calculus are being transformed by this growing demographic group that is generally aligned with the Democrats.

The big question that could ripple through the swing-state belt is how strongly that Democratic alignment will hold this time — and for the Republicans, whether the tough anti-immigrant talk that has often laced through this year’s presidential primaries will create headwinds among Hispanic voters that will be tough to counter. Mr. Obama’s support last time was less than some other Democratic presidential candidates received: President Bill Clinton in 1996 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 both had slightly stronger numbers.

“If it’s only 60 percent, then states such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico are going to be in play; if it’s 80 percent, he will probably win those states,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. “A lot of it is going to depend on the state of the economy.”

While the economy will no doubt play a huge role in the election, it may not be sufficient to make up for the ill will that has been created around immigration.

“Republicans have done a mystifying job of either ignoring or offending Hispanic voters,” Mark McKinnon, a strategist who worked for former President George W. Bush, said in the Bloomberg article. “And the consequences for the general election are likely to be significant and perhaps determinative to the outcome.”

Jim Carpenter, former chief of staff to then Governor Bill Ritter and now a principal in the Democratic strategy firm Stratton-Carpenter & Associates, says focusing on the economy could be a great strategy for Republicans… but won’t work.

“It’s a good strategy but they won’t be able to implement it,” Carpenter said. “If you look at the economic policies the Republicans are actually pursuing, and if you look at their policies on education funding, health care and immigration, it just isn’t that attractive to Latino voters.”

Colorado Democratic Party Communications Director Matt Inzeo makes the case that even if Hispanic voters can be distracted from thinking about the GOP’s immigration policies, they’ll find that Obama more than holds his own on economic issues.

“The recovery is making slow, steady progress. We’ve had two consecutive years of job growth. Colorado is outpacing the country in reducing unemployment,” Inzeo said.

Mendez, though, says the economy will play to the favor of Republicans. “All working people in Colorado, including Hispanics, have seen the Obama administration’s failure to offer any effective economic solutions, and the president will have to face those consequences come election day,” he said.

“In my opinion, its looking good for us right now,” Mendez said.

Perhaps Colorado’s most prominent Hispanic currently in office, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, a Democrat, disagrees.

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia (Kersgaard)

“The Republicans just keep digging a deeper hole.”

From The Times:

Mr. (Joe) Garcia, the lieutenant governor, said his greatest allies in the effort to engage and energize Hispanic voters were the Republican presidential hopefuls. In debates and speeches on the primary trail, he said, they have competed with one another to talk tough about ethnicity, education and the path to citizenship in ways that do not play well in Hispanic Colorado.

“The Republicans just keep digging a deeper hole,” he said.

(Image on homepage: Kersgaard)

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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