Latino voters could swing two key California races

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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Thanks to a surge of support from the state’s Latino voters, two California Democrats in close mid-term election races — Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer — may be slowly pulling away from their GOP opponents, according to recent polls. But with a large number of voters, including Latinos, still undecided, both contests, especially Brown’s, remain toss-ups.

Boxer, seeking her fourth term in the US Senate, has opened up an 8-point lead over former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who is backed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Brown, meanwhile, previously in a statistical dead heat with former eBay CEO Meg Whitman to replace term-limited Arnold Schwarzenegger as California’s governor, now enjoys a 5 point lead.

That’s good news for Democrats at a time when so many other mid-term congressional races are trending Republican. With other blue states like Connecticut and even New York slowly slipping from the Democrats’ grasp, the Boxer race could be just the firewall Democrats need to keep the GOP from regaining a majority in the Senate.

And while a Brown victory won’t do anything to prevent Republicans from dominating the nation’s statehouses after November — they have 28, and will likely get to 35 — winning back California’s would be a huge symbolic victory.

It’s not hard to figure out why so many California voters are still seeing “red”: the state’s economy is in dire shape, with a jobless rate (12.4%) nearly three points higher than the national average. And the state, facing an enormous $19 billion deficit, hasn’t had a budget in over 3 months. That’s given the GOP an opening to woo independents and disaffected Democrats — especially female voters — with two dynamic and accomplished business executives who are also political newcomers.

Latinos, a third of the state’s population and 21% of its electorate, are a key voting bloc in California. Like most Californians, Latinos have a strong independent streak when it comes to the governor’s race, having sometimes tilted Republican in the past. And the state’s economic crisis has hit them especially hard. Neither party, it turns out, has a lock on their votes.

Boxer, to her chagrin, held only a small lead over Fiorina among Latinos as recently as two months ago. Alarmed, state Democrats, led by Los Angeles’ popular Latino mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, launched a major support campaign, relying on the same grassroots network that carried Latinos 2-1 for Obama in 2008. It’s clearly paid off. According to a just-released poll, Boxer has opened up a whopping 64% to 28% lead among Latinos, with 8% undecided. A separate poll found that the two Senate candidates would still be in a dead heat, 48%-48%, were it not for Boxer’s Latino edge.

Brown, according to several polls, is still hovering in the 50% range with Latinos but has gained ground after trailing early. But about 35% of Latinos still support Whitman, and 18% remain undecided. Several factors seem to be hindering Brown. He is far less well known than Boxer; his last stint as governor was nearly four decades ago, and most voters simply don’t remember him — at least not fondly. And his state attorney general role hasn’t allowed him to establish a solid track record on a broad range of issues. At 72, he’s also the oldest gubernatorial candidate in California history — too old, say some.

Brown’s initial outreach to Latinos was even worse than Boxer’s — a few high-level Latino political endorsements and ads reminding voters that he once marched with legendary migrant farm worker organizer Cesar Chavez — way back in the 1960s. Whitman proceeded to saturate the Spanish-language airwaves with her pro-jobs message while moving to defuse the immigration issue by projecting herself as a moderate. Unlike Fiorina, she now opposes Arizona’s harsh new enforcement law, SB 1070, despite having supported it in the primaries. And she scored big by challenging Brown to a debate on the Spanish television station Univision, an offer that Brown unwisely turned down.

With barely a month left to go until the election, Brown clearly needs to increase his current Latino outreach, which is finally paying dividends. Another factor is whether Obama and Senate Democrats will continue to promote immigration reform, allowing Brown and Boxer to draw a sharper contrast with their opponents. Latino turn-out is likely to improve significantly, but with independents, about 20% of the electorate, it could well hurt, if pushed too far. Until now, Boxer, like Whitman, has managed to walk a thin line on immigration: breaking ranks with her fellow Democrats to back John McCain’s new bill on border enforcement, while still promising to push a sweeping legalization program in 2011.

Should Boxer and Brown welcome more open White House support? A curse elsewhere, it would likely help here. Despite serious concerns over his policies, Obama remains unusually popular, personally, with voters. For Democrats, a high-profile, White House-backed victory in the nation’s most populous state — fueled in part by a re-energized Latino base — would be welcome relief from the GOP’s expected strong gains this November. Anything less will only confirm their current troubles.

Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.