LOS ANGELES — When Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, signed SB 1070 — the state’s high-profile effort to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants — into law in April, strategists worried openly about the possibility of alienating Latino voters.
Some Republicans, especially those from Hispanic-heavy states like Texas’s Rick Perry and Florida’s Marco Rubio, criticized the measure, and many feared a repeat of the kind of GOP decline that occurred in California in the 1990s after Republican governor Pete Wilson touted another draconian immigration measure, Proposition 187. Democrats, meanwhile, cheered at finding an issue that would resonate with Latino voters in November — and potentially far beyond. “The Republicans are going to regret making this an issue,” Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said at the time.
[Immigration1] But in California and the Southwest, where strategists predicted anti-GOP sentiment among Latinos to run deepest, the backlash simply hasn’t materialized. In fact, Republican gubernatorial candidates — both those who embraced the Arizona law and those who attempted to distance themselves from it — are polling well in the region and among Latinos, threatening to loosen Democrats’ grip on a demographic they assumed they could count on in November.
In California, where Latinos make up over 35 percent of the population, GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was forced to walk a fine line in the primary: She made it clear that she opposed the Arizona law from the beginning, but she managed to signal a harsh stance toward illegal immigration in other ways. She enlisted Pete Wilson to assure Republican voters that she would be “tough as nails” on the issue, and she pledged to deny in-state tuition and driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants — a policy which, combined with the xenophobic perceptions of the GOP resulting from the Arizona law, threatened to attract staunch opposition from Latino voters in the fall.
Last week’s Field Poll, however, indicated that Whitman is in a virtual dead heat with her Democratic opponent, former governor Jerry Brown, polling competitively even among California’s Hispanic population. In a state where Latinos tend to swing heavily Democratic, the respected California pollster showed Whitman trailing 50% to 39% among the demographic — when some analysts say a Democrat in California needs at least two-thirds of the Latino vote to win statewide.
In Nevada, where Latinos make up 24 percent of the population, Republican Brian Sandoval likewise appears to have avoided a backlash. A former district judge now running for governor, he came out in favor of the Arizona law and still finds himself leading Democrat Rory Reid by over 20 points. And Republican Susana Martinez is leading in her race for governor of New Mexico — the state with the highest proportion of Hispanics in the country (over 44 percent) — despite her open support, according to her campaign manager, for Arizona’s right “to ensure the security of its citizens.”
Latino voters haven’t suddenly taken a liking to the Arizona law — most polls show that 70 percent oppose it — but contrary to the expectations of Democrats, their loyalty this November is still very much up for grabs. The reason, according to experts keeping close tabs on the races, is straightforward: Republicans have simply worked harder to court the Hispanic vote in the wake of the Arizona law.
“What Republicans have done is they’ve realized that they’re in a deficit right now, and, to their credit, they’ve realized they’ve got to make up ground,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “They’ve caught the Democrats in a sense of complacency, thinking ‘Oh well, the Republicans have really angered the Latinos so they’re going to come along regardless.’ If you’re going to ignore them, that’s the risk you take.”
GOP outreach to Latinos in California and the Southwest has taken a number of forms. Nevada’s Sandoval has played up his Hispanic heritage, launching a new ad entitled “Ya Es Hora” (“It’s About Time”), the first ad of his general election campaign. Martinez, too, is cutting ads in Spanish. She’s also breaking ground for Hispanics in New Mexico: It’s the first time in the state’s history that two Republican Hispanics are running for governor and lieutenant governor at the same time.
Identity politics aside, however, the real difference has been in outreach — and nowhere has this been more evident than in California. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Jerry Brown campaign had just hired its first fluent Spanish speaker to handle Spanish-language media, and a spokesman indicated that the campaign website would soon be translated into Spanish. Whitman, by contrast, has long had a Spanish speaker handling media requests, and she had her website translated into Spanish (and Chinese) months ago. She’s also made herself eminently available to Spanish-language media outlets for interviews.
“In the past, you’ve seen a lot of Republicans shy away from Spanish-language press,” said Whitman spokesman Hector Barajas. Whitman, Barajas noted, has sat down for lengthy interviews on Univision and Telemundo, and the campaign timed its Spanish-language ad blitz to start during the Mexico-France game of the World Cup and continue during the coveted halftime slots of games during Mexico’s run through the tournament.
In addition to seizing Spanish-language media opportunities through interviews or paid advertising, Whitman has been crisscrossing the state, spending considerable time in Latino-heavy areas less frequented during her primary campaign. She’s held events with Latinos everywhere from Fresno County to Compton, from East Los Angeles to South Gate — a city in Los Angeles County estimated to be 92 percent Latino, where she met with families and attended a soccer tournament.
“The thing that separates her is the ability to have this conversation,” Barajas said. “The public has said, ‘Look, she’s willing to go out and give her position to the community.’ That is why you’re starting to see those numbers move for her.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Latino support for Democrats in Washington has been declining steadily. With deportations of illegal immigrants on the rise since Obama took office and the prospects of a comprehensive immigration reform bill looking increasingly dim before midterm elections, Obama’s approval rating among Latinos has slipped from 69 percent in January to 57 percent in May.
Of course, it’s still early in the campaign and quite possible that some of the things Whitman said during her Republican primary — in English — might eventually catch up with her. Her 60-second TV ad in which she voiced willingness to send National Guard troops to the border and her radio spot featuring Pete Wilson are obvious contenders.
In response to his sagging poll numbers among Latinos, Jerry Brown assembled over a dozen Latino leaders at California State University, Los Angeles last week and accused his opponent of doublespeak. “Listen, you can put up your billboards in Spanish and you can buy stuff on Spanish television, but the people aren’t fooled. The people know the truth,” he said.
Barajas, in response, says “the charge that we’re saying one thing in Spanish and one thing in English” is bogus — Whitman has always opposed the Arizona law and she’s always been in favor of denying driver’s licenses and in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.
Regardless of whether Whitman’s rhetoric has shifted, Brown clearly hasn’t done enough to make his case to Latinos. At the very least, the situation has already taught Democrats a valuable lesson: The Arizona law notwithstanding, they can’t assume Latinos will turn out to vote Democratic in November.
“The onus is on Brown to get his message out there and demonstrate to the electorate what his positions are compared to Whitman’s,” said Vargas. “He has to go ask Latino voters for their vote.”