Monday, Oct. 18, 2010 | 10:51 p.m.
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In the waning weeks of the election, all eyes are focusing on one ethnic voting bloc — Hispanics, who have emerged as the make it or break it constituency in Nevada’s tight Senate race.
The common wisdom is clear-cut: If Hispanics make it to the polls in large numbers, Democrats can win. If they don’t, Republicans stand a better chance of victory.
As politicians and activists scramble to turn out the Hispanic vote, as the Democrats are pushing, or to overwhelm or suppress the Latino vote, as some conservatives are trying, the 2010 Senate contest is turning into a race about race.
In Nevada, accusations about racially reprehensible practices started flying a few weeks ago. That’s when Tea Party-backed Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle aired an TV advertisement about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s immigration record, featuring images of menacing-looking Mexican men with the words “Illegal Aliens” superimposed at the bottom of the screen.
Hispanic activists decried the advertisement as “race-baiting” — a charge the Angle campaign denied repeatedly, even up through this weekend, when she told an assembly of Hispanic high school students at Rancho High School that she wasn’t sure the images featured were of Latinos at all.
“You know, I don’t know that all of you are Latino. Some of you look a little more Asian to me,” she said, in an effort to defuse a situation that, judging by the renewed backlash, only reinforced the argument of those who have charged her with racial insensitivity, and other more serious labels.
But racial consciousness permeates every election cycle, and racially tinged tactics aren’t a new practice in American politics. Because say what you will about them — they often work.
Racial politics aren’t always, or only, about racism. Get-out-the-vote efforts that targeted black and Hispanic communities are credited in large part for turning the tide in certain swing states toward President Barack Obama in 2008. Across Nevada, Hispanic activists are trying to reactivate that momentum for the 2010 cycle.
Efforts to suppress the vote can also come from within a community — as is taking place in Nevada.
On Monday, a group called “Latinos for Reform” — an independent political organization that is not subject to disclosure rules — joined the electoral fray, with two commercials urging Hispanics to sit out the election.
The group made a name for itself during the 2008 election cycle campaigning against Obama, on the grounds that he favored blacks over Hispanics.
The leader of that group, Robert Deposada, a conservative pundit on Spanish-language Univision who once ran President George W. Bush’s commission to advance privatization of Social Security, said Hispanics should boycott the polls because Obama has not yet delivered on his campaign promise to tackle immigration reform.
Other Hispanic activists immediately decried the advertisements.
“No Nevadan should be silenced or have their vote suppressed, especially those in the Hispanic community, who have been disproportionately impacted during these tough economic times,” said Luis Valera, vice president of Las Vegas’ Latin Chamber of Commerce.
Valera was joined by other Hispanic leaders in calling for Republican candidates Angle and Brian Sandoval — himself a Hispanic — to denounce the ads, and for radio, television, and Internet providers to pull the plug on the commercials.
The Latinos for Reform commercial campaign to suppress the Hispanic vote, whether or not by design, may complement Angle’s efforts to turn out the anti-illegal immigrant vote.
Angle’s commercial — which is no longer airing, after a copyright infringement tiff with Getty Images over the featured photograph — isn’t the first commercial to have earned charges of race-baiting.
David Vitter, a Republican senator from Louisiana campaigning for re-election, is earning as much, if not more, vitriol for a series of anti-illegal immigration commercials — one of which used the same photo — that juxtaposed white and Hispanic people in a way that portrays Hispanics as outsiders.
Hispanic advocates have also likened Angle’s ad to the now-infamous Willie Horton ad of 1988, and Jesse Helms’ 1990 Senate campaign, which featured a pair of white hands crumpling up a letter as a narrator said: “You needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority.”
Both were heavily criticized at the time they aired for racially motivated fear-mongering. But in both of those instances, the candidates airing the controversial ads won.
And Vitter? Despite a past term that even put the senator at the center of a national call-girl controversy, he’s leading his opponent by double-digits.
To be sure, the Hispanic populations of Louisiana and Nevada aren’t comparable. At 26 percent of the state population, and 15 percent of the 2008 electorate, Hispanics in Nevada represent a potentially election-swinging force in the midterm race.
Hispanic advocates have said that Hispanics are a unique force to be reckoned with — and warned that the community in Nevada will respond to efforts to sideline, stereotype, and marginalize them by turning out in droves to the polls.
But those numbers weren’t visible this weekend, at a pair of campaign rallies headlined by gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid and Senate candidate Harry Reid, who commented in his remarks at the small size of the crowd.
Hispanic leaders admit the ad worries them. With voters already angry about the economy, worried about jobs, frustrated by inaction — especially on immigration reform — in Washington and punch drunk from near-constant negative campaign commercials, they know the ad could keep people from the polls.
“Of course I’m worried,” said Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, a nonpartisan group that encourages Latinos to be politically active, adding that immigration trumps jobs and the economy as Hispanic voters’ top concern. “We should all be worried.”
“Please go out and vote,” pleaded Democrat Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, a state Senate candidate, at an appearance with other Hispanic leaders to respond to the advertisements. “We can’t let them win.”
Sun reporter Delen Goldberg contributed to this story.