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December 20, 2014

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Republican Senate candidates eager to exploit Arizona sentiment

Conservatives willing to further alienate Latino voters on immigration issue

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Tiffany Gibson

Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joseph Arpaio speaks to reporters.

Immigration reform protest of Arizona sheriff

Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joseph Arpaio speaks to reporters. Launch slideshow »

A month before Election Day, Nevada Republicans are scrambling to capitalize on the conservative fervor surrounding Arizona’s tough new anti-illegal immigration law, in hopes of winning their party’s nomination for U.S. Senate.

Consider the past week:

Assemblyman Chad Christensen, a long-shot candidate seeking the right to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is drafting a Nevada ballot initiative that would replicate the Arizona measure, which makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally and directs police to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they’re illegal immigrants.

Danny Tarkanian, another would-be Reid challenger, accepted the endorsement of the Minutemen, a movement of citizens who patrol the border looking for people crossing into the country illegally.

To cap the week, conservatives embraced Joe Arpaio, the freewheeling sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, as the guest of honor at a local mixer. Arpaio’s controversial crime and immigration sweeps in heavily Latino neighborhoods have made him the public face of the immigration debate nationwide, not to mention his fondness for chain gangs and desert tent prisons.

Former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, also a Senate candidate, gave “Sheriff Joe” a shout-out in a debate this month, saying the country would be a better place with more men like him.

Republicans believe they can tap into grass-roots anger and appeal to independents’ frustrated with the state’s high unemployment rate in the face of illegal labor, a potent issue in a state that leads the nation in the percentage of undocumented immigrants in the workforce. But the strategy is not without risk, because it is rallying a key part of the Democratic base — Latinos, who had grown dispirited over the Obama administration’s failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Toward that end, Reid recently pledged to tackle the issue this year, though any legislative action before the November elections seems unlikely.

Experts say Republicans’ hard-line stance against immigration may pay off in the short term — at the expense of losing generations of Hispanics, whose numbers are growing, both here and elsewhere. Hispanic leaders are more blunt.

“The future looks weak for the Republican Party, as far as our participation is concerned,” said Fernando Romero, president of the nonpartisan Hispanics in Politics, Nevada’s oldest Hispanic organization. “They are prostituting themselves in order to get votes.” The words are surprising, given that Romero supported Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008 and directed his presidential campaign’s Hispanic outreach here.

According to surveys and data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center, Republicans have been hemorrhaging Hispanic support. In summer 2008, with the presidential contest in full swing, the group found Democrats had a 39-percentage-point edge over Republicans in party identification — the widest gap in a decade. As recently as 2006, the gap was just 21 points.

Attitudes about the parties also differ greatly. A poll by the consulting firm Latino Decisions this year found that 10 percent of Latinos find the Republican Party welcoming toward their race, versus 33 percent who feel welcomed by the Democrats.

The trend is troubling for Republicans. Hispanics are an emerging force in Nevada politics.

In 2008, the state was 25 percent Hispanic, up from 20 percent eight years earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Hispanics comprised 15 percent of the Nevada electorate in 2008, compared with 10 percent in 2004, and they voted for Barack Obama by a 3-to-1 margin.

Pew Hispanic Center data show the immigration issue’s resonance in the Hispanic community, especially as the parties debate the constitutionality of Arizona’s new law.

Fifty-seven percent of Hispanics worry that they, their friends or relatives may be deported. Nearly a third say they have experienced racial discrimination and less than half have confidence that police officers treat Latinos fairly in their communities.

“We’re talking about lives,” Romero said. “And the only thing they are using to get elected is to be anti-Hispanic, anti-Latino, anti-immigrant.”

Romero said many in the Hispanic community felt betrayed, particularly after the out-sized role Latinos play in Las Vegas’ service and construction industries. “They used Hispanics like tools,” he said. “We built this city and now that the growth has reached a plateau, they are trying to throw us out. That’s not going to happen.”

But Republicans, who championed reform years ago, don’t seem to be looking past November.

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