isaac brekken / associated press file
Published Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Updated Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 | 4:27 p.m.
Rick Perry, the immigration moderate, is sinking in the Republican presidential polls. GOP Sen. Dean Heller is ditching scheduled campaign appearances at Latin Chamber of Commerce meetings. And even conservatives in the Hispanic community are gaga for Democratic congressional candidate Ruben Kihuen.
So as Latino Republican leaders in Las Vegas maintain 2012 is the year to bolster the party’s Hispanic ranks, they are having to convince Republican candidates it’s a cause worth working for.
“You would be surprised at how many Republican Latinos there actually are in the state of Nevada. There are quite a few of us,” said Alex Garza, a Hispanic Republican activist. “I think the numbers are there; we just haven’t organized as well as the Democratic Latino organizations.”
The potential political power of Latinos is an oft-told story in Nevada and elsewhere, though any happy ending at the polls usually is enjoyed by Democrats.
Hispanics make up over a quarter of the state’s population, over a third of the population in Clark County, and during last year’s election, a record 16 percent of the electoral turnout.
In recent elections, the Latino vote in Nevada has swung heavily Democratic — 70 percent of the electorate came out for Harry Reid’s re-election last year; 77 percent for Obama in 2008. In 2004, Reid also pulled 70 percent of the Latino vote.
Lately, however, the Democratic hold on that vote has appeared to weaken.
Obama’s job approval numbers among Hispanics are at less than 50 percent, according to two polls this week. Democratic firm Lake Research Partners counted only 43 percent of Hispanics ranking Obama’s performance as “excellent” or “good” this fall. Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center poll this month puts his approval rating at 49 percent among Hispanics, only slightly higher than his approval rating among all Americans.
It’s not the loyalty Democrats want from their emerging bloc of base voters.
“The guy’s a failure as president,” said Rene Cantu, a prominent member of the Las Vegas Latino community and board member of the Latin Chamber of Commerce. A self-described lifelong Democrat, Cantu voted for Obama in 2008 but has changed his stripes, going so far as to register as a Republican.
“My values and views are ... very much more in line with the Republican Party,” he said, explaining that he feels Republicans’ position on immigration is what kept him “holding on to the Democratic Party for so long.” But then the Obama administration broke faith there, too.
“There has been a record number of deportations,” Cantu said. “That tells me he doesn’t care.”
Hispanic Democrats admit Obama’s record-setting performance on deportations — and the lack of any measurable successes on immigration reform — has been difficult to explain to members of the community.
“We have a lot of work to do, to bring people out who want to vote for President Obama and his administration,” said Vicenta Montoya, an immigration attorney in Las Vegas who serves as director of the Sí Se Puede (translation: “yes we can”) caucus of the Clark County Democrats.
But they do have a message ready to keep Latinos voting Democratic.
“There was almost a 100 percent Republican vote against the Dream Act,” Montoya said, referring to legislation that would give permanent residency to undocumented individuals who arrived in the United States as children and met other criteria. “This is not Latin America, this is not South America, (Obama) is not a dictator ... It’s a real civics lesson to teach people that no, just because you’re the president doesn’t mean you get whatever you want.”
And, Democrats argue, immigration is rarely a Latino voter’s No. 1 issue.
“Immigration does not come as one of the top issues for Latinos,” said Andres Ramirez, a Democratic strategist based in Las Vegas. “It is one of the most mobilizing issues though, on how they determine a candidate ... and the way (Republicans) talk about immigrants, it’s very offensive, it’s very dehumanizing how they view immigrants.”
Republican Sharron Angle’s U.S. Senate campaign commercials have not been forgotten (they depicted Latino immigrants as menacing), and although other Republican candidates have not echoed her campaign’s questionable sentiments on immigrants and Hispanics (“some of you look a little more Asian to me”), they also haven’t done much to reach out to the community.
Rep. Joe Heck is the only Republican candidate who has run a campaign for a statewide or federal office with a Latino outreach director; Heller hired his first Latino-outreach staffer on Sept. 1.
“He made the effort,” Tibi Ellis said. “He carved out time to talk to the community, and there is the proof: He’s elected.”
Ellis is in some ways the opposite of Cantu — a longtime Republican, she remains true to her conservative roots and optimistic about the party’s future in the Latino community. But she quit the party after it failed to rally around her Assembly campaign last year — a bid she said she was initially recruited for — and get the recalcitrant right wing of the party to support her candidacy.
She lost her primary, and the incumbent, Marilyn Dondero Loop, beat Republican Tim Williams in a close race. Ellis, meanwhile, changed her registration to independent and her tone to one of concerned criticism at how the party she loves is speaking to Latinos.
During the Republican presidential candidates’ nationally televised debate in Las Vegas last month, they were asked how they would speak to the Latino community. Newt Gingrich suggested that Latinos didn’t need to be singled out as any different from any other ethnic group. But Rick Santorum suggested Latinos should naturally gravitate toward the Republican Party because of shared faith-based values.
That message resonates with some Latinos.
“The Republican Party has very, very strong family values ... Latino families in general believe in the family values as well,” said Jose Hernandez, an accountant who serves as a youth pastor at his evangelical church with a mostly Latino group of 18- to 30-year-olds he counsels.
“My youth that I teach, obviously I’m teaching them Biblical principles and stuff, but then outside, I introduce them to the subject ... and by doing that I’m actually getting people to start coming around and thinking that the Republican agenda actually has better options than President Obama and the Senate,” he said. “If they’re learning good Christian values, they will vote Republican.”
Catching the youth is key any effort to gain support in the community. Nationwide, every month, 50,000 Latinos turn 18 and become eligible to vote.
Cantu and Garza say the party is working on it but could use funding and assistance from the greater Nevada GOP.
But for Ellis the party’s efforts have fallen short.
“What an opportunity they missed,” she said. The presidential candidates “were here in town, and none of them made an effort to contact the leaders in the community ... They need to show up in our communities. You expect to represent us? Show up in our communities.”
Latin Chamber of Commerce board member Peter Guzman, a conservative independent who usually votes Republican (though he admits he voted for Harry Reid in 2010 and intends to vote for Ruben Kihuen, if he gets the chance to), doesn’t fault the party that it hasn’t yet done more.
“I blame the majority of that on ourselves,” he said. “We are a large number ... but we don’t demand anything and most importantly, we don’t vote proportionally to the population.”
The numbers show the unrealized potential of the Latino vote: 16 percent turnout come election time is only slightly more than half the Hispanic population’s representation statewide.
And then there’s the matter of how the elections have worked for local Republicans: Brian Sandoval, who is Hispanic, didn’t need the Latino vote to win the governor’s office, and Dean Heller has never won on the strength of the Latino vote.
That fact, Guzman surmised, helps explains why Heller hasn’t yet rescheduled with the Latin Chamber of Commerce, after walking out of a meeting at the last minute, when he discovered an aide to Rep. Shelley Berkley was also going to be in attendance.
“We as Hispanics, we need to learn to unite and vote in bloc and we need to demand certain things,” Guzman said. “We can’t let the Democratic Party or the Republican Party assume they have our vote: That’s where we make our mistake.”
Garza said he sees Latinos taking steps in that direction, which is why he’s optimistic that the GOP can start to turn the Latino tide this year.
“There’s a lot of discontent,” he said. “You’re seeing more and more Latinos leave the Democratic Party and register independent. Next step is that they register Republican.
“You’re seeing more people not saying they’re going to vote Republican but at least saying they’re not going to vote for Obama ... What that means is people are actually exploring all ideas. We need to do it on a larger scale ... but you’re going to see Latino Republican registration increase. And I’m guaranteeing that.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story indicated that Rep. Joe Heck was the only Nevada Republican candidate for statewide or federal office with a Latino outreach director. That was true until Sept. 1, when Heller hired a Latino outreach director. | (November 21, 2011)