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Parties Court Latinos as Swing Voters in 2012

GOP Sees Opportunity in a Formerly Untapped Minority Constituency

Latinos are set to play a major role in the 2012 elections, and both parties are ramping up efforts to woo Hispanic voters.

The GOP sees an opportunity with this fast-growing segment of the population, which President Barack Obama’s team has made clear is central to his re-election strategy.

The Republican National Committee will try to capitalize on the fact that Latino unemployment is more than 2 points higher than the national average by contrasting its positions against Obama’s record on the economy.

“Our political team will acknowledge that we have not always communicated very well with Hispanics across the country,” RNC Press Secretary Kirsten Kukowski told Roll Call. “What you’ll see this cycle is our political team is working to have outreach folks on the ground in the major battleground states — Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida,” as well as in Virginia and North Carolina.

The RNC hired a press secretary for Latino issues, Alex Franceschi, and has regional political directors on the ground in Florida and Las Vegas who are beginning to open lines of communication with Latino communities. The RNC is also in the process of hiring two Latino voter outreach directors to be stationed in Washington, D.C.

“Despite the fact that we don’t have a candidate yet to rally behind, we already have people in the Republican Party working hard to create jobs,” Franceschi said. They want to let their “Hispanic stars shine” — statewide elected Republicans such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.

For its part, the Obama campaign recently hired Adrian Saenz as Latino vote director, and the Democratic National Committee added Juan Sepúlveda as senior adviser for Hispanic affairs.

The Obama campaign’s various teams, including media, field and digital will all be involved in Latino voter engagement, which will include voter registration, education, persuasion and turnout, according to a campaign source.

Latinos have been targeted on the airwaves for months, with Crossroads GPS running Spanish-language TV ads at least twice in Nevada, as well as in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Washington, D.C. The DNC has aired Spanish-language ads pushing Obama’s jobs bill in a few of those states in recent months as well.

Major Latino organizations believe Latino voters will have even more of an effect on the 2012 presidential election than they did three years ago. With redistricting and reapportionment creating new opportunities, Latino representation in Congress is expected to increase come 2013.

With Texas, Arizona, Florida and Nevada adding districts, and with California’s new independent redistricting process, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Charlie Gonzalez estimates the 21-member Democratic caucus will have at least 28 members come January 2013.

“The numbers are with us,” the Texas Democrat said in an interview. “It all depends on if the raw population numbers translate into voting age eligibility, voter registration and Election Day performance. But those are the internal factors regardless, so the opportunities are there.”

The 2010 census reported that the nationwide Hispanic population is 50.5 million, a 43 percent increase from 2000, and constitutes 16 percent of the total U.S. population. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials projects that at least 12.2 million Latinos will vote next year, with California, Florida and Illinois seeing the greatest percentage increase in Latino turnout since 2008.

Latino voters, who made up 9 percent of the electorate in 2008, aided Obama’s first victory, and the president’s campaign is banking on a repeat performance next year. Latinos voted 67 percent for Obama and helped him flip states such as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico from the Republican column.

Those states, along with Florida, Virginia and perhaps Arizona are in play again, meaning both parties will be gunning for this crucial and potentially swing voting bloc. In doing so, Latino organizations hope candidates address the issues they care about most: jobs and the economy, education, health care and immigration, according to Julian Teixeira, a National Council of La Raza spokesman.

“2012 will be a critical election year for Latinos — a chance to translate our strength in sheer population numbers to real political strength,” Teixeira said.

Teixeira said the groups fear that newly passed state voter-identification laws and the scaling back of programs for early voting and third-party voter registration could suppress Latino turnout.

Evan Bacalao, the senior director of civic engagement at NALEO, predicted Latinos would show up in greater numbers than ever before and said both parties should not take that vote for granted.

“The challenge we’re trying to overcome is for Republicans to realize that Latinos are swing voters and, with proper engagement, can be garnering more for their cause,” Bacalao said. “And on the flip side is making sure that Democrats understand that Latino voters are an important segment of their electorate and are not a guaranteed Democratic vote.”

A Univision News poll released last month found Obama leading former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among Latinos with some two-thirds of the vote, matching his 2008 performance. The poll was taken before the resurgence of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). But Republicans are bullish on their chances to pick up support from Latinos.

“Enthusiasm on the part of Hispanics for President Obama is dramatically less than it was in 2008 because he hasn’t fulfilled his campaign promises either,” Sen. John McCain, Obama’s 2008 opponent, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “So I view the Hispanic vote up for grabs.”

But McCain also said his home state of Arizona “can be up for grabs” for Democrats, as are states Obama won such as New Mexico and Colorado. Eventually, Democratic presidential nominees will be competitive even in deeply Republican Texas, where Latinos now make up 38 percent of the population, McCain said.

“The demographics are clear that the Hispanic vote will be a major factor in national elections,” McCain said.

If the sputtering economy has hurt Obama among Latinos, Gonzalez said that when a Republican nominee emerges and Latinos have a clear contrast between two candidates, Obama’s support in Latino communities will crystallize.

“Within the limitations imposed by a Republican Congress, the president has still made great strides,” Gonzalez said. “Not as great as Latino communities would have liked him to have done when it comes to the issue of immigration. But it’s not for want of trying.”

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