Latino victories have Democrats panicking

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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Look closely at the recently-elected 112th Congress. Notice all those bright new faces of “color”? Guess what, most of those faces are Republican. The GOP fielded a large number of ethnic candidates, and, to the surprise of some, a large number won. The new Republican crop includes five Hispanic freshmen, including one woman, Jaime Herrera, who won an open seat in, of all places, Washington. And the two Hispanic Republican candidates in Texas won by defeating Democratic incumbents.

But perhaps even more remarkable were the stunning victories of Marco Rubio in Florida and Susana Martinez in New Mexico. Rubio, who’s Cuban-American, won a blistering 20-point victory in Florida’s three-way Senate race. Democrats were so worried about Rubio winning that they considered forcing their own candidate, Kendrick Meek, out of the race, and casting their lot with former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. Those rumors only seemed to add fuel to Rubio’s fire; Rubio pulled away during the campaign’s final two weeks.

Martinez won the New Mexico governor’s race by a smaller, but still comfortable, margin. Because both candidates were women — her opponent was Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish — it was an historic race. But Martinez’s victory was even more historic because she’s the first Hispanic female governor in US history. That’s a political breakthrough on par with President Obama’s appointment of Sonia Sotomayor as the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

Except that you’d hardly know that from the current lack of jubilation, even in Hispanic ranks.

Is it any wonder? There are time-honored rules of liberal “identity politics” that dictate that “breakthrough” candidates like Martinez should be liberals, not conservatives. If they’re conservatives, it means, ipso facto, that they aren’t actually “authentic” representatives of their people. Like Clarence Thomas, they’re deemed “sell-outs,” or at best, some strange political mutation.

But both Rubio and Martinez won thanks to strong support from Hispanics as well as whites. Rubio won 55% of the Latino vote in a state where Obama, two years ago, won 56%. And Martinez won twice as much of the Hispanic vote as her GOP predecessor did four years ago.

And here’s something else equally disturbing to Democrats: Rubio and Martinez aren’t just Republicans, they’re Sarah Palin-endorsed Tea Party Republicans. Both oppose an “amnesty” for illegal aliens. Martinez supports tough immigration enforcement, and Rubio says illegal aliens shouldn’t be included in the 2010 US Census. Shocking.

In the coming days and weeks, you’re likely to hear a lot about the Latino vote in Nevada, California, and maybe Colorado. How Latinos rallied to support “pro-Latino” Democrats against big-bad GOP “nativists” like Sharron Angle and Tom Tancredo. And that’s clearly one of the trends that’s still at work in Latino politics. But it’s also the trend that best fits the traditional rules of identity politics, and brings the most comfort to its promoters.

The Rubio and Martinez victories, and the equally under-reported triumphs of Indian-American Nikky Haley and African-American Tim Scott in South Carolina, do neither.

In fact, two important lessons emerged from these elections that should cause Democrats to worry. First, with so few Latinos in high public office, many Latinos are likely to gravitate toward Latino candidates, regardless of their party affiliation. Shared ethnicity counts, especially when there are serious doubts about the efficacy of Democratic incumbents.

That means if Democrats want to limit future GOP Hispanic victories, they’ll need to field more Hispanic candidates of their own. In this election cycle, in stark contrast to 2008, they often took Hispanic voters for granted.

Second, because of their ethnicity, Republican Hispanic candidates may enjoy a Teflon coating when it comes to liberal charges of “nativism” on immigration. Rubio and Martinez, who strongly support legal immigration, can’t credibly be accused of being “anti-Hispanic” for wanting America’s borders controlled.

But GOP leaders might also look to Rubio and Martinez as foils for their nativist wing, which, left untethered, will surely continue to damage their chances with Latinos, as Nevada and Colorado, especially, revealed.

Let’s be clear: Democrats haven’t suddenly lost their political edge with Latino voters. Exit polls indicate that Latinos broadly favored Democrats over Republicans by a 2-1 margin, but, according to Zogby International and other pollsters, there was a good 5% slippage from 2008. And numerous Republicans, including Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, gave their opponents a real run for their money with Hispanics until the finals days of their campaigns.

If Rubio and Martinez perform well in office, this trend will surely continue.

House Democrats now face an important decision: should they expand the ranks of the 20-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus to include the GOP Hispanic freshmen? The Congressional Black Caucus has just decided to include Tim Scott. And two other GOP Hispanics, Cuban-Americans Iliana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, while not currently Caucus members, do support comprehensive immigration reform.

Clearly, Democratic control over the House Hispanic “presence” — which is now a third GOP — is slipping. With Ros-Lehtinen slated to become the new chair of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, GOP Hispanics could well decide to form their own caucus. And with 23 Democratic senators up for re-election in 2012 — compared to just 10 Republicans — Rubio may soon have some company in the Senate.

Republicans, naturally, are ecstatic. They may even decide to put Rubio — or even Martinez — on the GOP ticket. Privately, one senior Democratic campaign strategist has called that prospect “dangerous.” No kidding.

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. He can be reached at stewart.lawrence@gmail.com.