- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

SANTA ANA, Calif. — It was predicted, and doubted, years ago.

There are seven Hispanic Republicans challenging Democratic incumbents for congressional seats and another dozen or so running for the state Assembly.

Some have run and lost before, but are bolstered by the party’s heightened profile among Hispanics prompted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But others are newly minted federal candidates, likewise prompted by the governor’s standing in the community.

Leading the pack of new Republican hopefuls in the largest blue state in the land is Alexandria Coronado, 36, a single mother who believes she can unseat Rep. Loretta Sanchez in a district that is 34 percent Republican.

“You know that in politics, the pendulum swings,” says Miss Coronado, a pianist and a member of the Orange County Board of Education. “And it will swing this way, and that’s when you will see more Republican Hispanics running for the higher offices. For a long time, they were school board members and things like that. Not anymore.”

The Democratic utopia of California makes such a proposed transformation all the more unlikely because it is a state where Democrats have ruled with the faithful help of the nationally coveted Hispanic vote.

Even state pundits don’t doubt some of these challenges.

“You know, Loretta Sanchez is vulnerable,” Dick Rosengarten, publisher of the state political news weekly California Political Week, said of the 47th District incumbent. “And some of these other Hispanic candidates can make things tough for the incumbents. The state party has done a tremendous job of recruiting here.”

Many of these eager Hispanic Republican candidates are no-chancers who are continuing an effort to pave the way.

Still aching from a 81 percent to 19 percent drubbing two years ago, Luis Vega, a native of Puerto Rico, is again taking on Rep. Xavier Becerra in the 31st District, an urban enclave that is built for Democrats, with young people, activist immigrants and lifelong liberals.

“It’s hard to find any candidate who will even run in these districts,” says Mr. Vega, a former Spanish-language television reporter. “But as more and more immigrants become naturalized, they can now vote. We see more Hispanic candidates running Republican as more and more votes become available. And more immigrants are going to have to see that they have voting options, rather than just going for the Democrat.”

Victor Elizalde vows to “continue the recall revolution,” as his campaign literature puts it, in his bid to unseat Henry A. Waxman, who has represented a mostly upscale portion of the Los Angeles area since 1974.

Mr. Waxman’s 30th District sprawls from Santa Monica to the heart of Hollywood and then north to a more modest section of blue-collar homes. It is 75 percent white and 7 percent Hispanic.

Rather than trading on his Mexican heritage, then, Mr. Elizalde, 36, is championing his party while firmly grasping the coattails of the governor.

“This Republican resurgence started with Arnold,” says the Chicago native, who is both pro-choice and strongly against illegal immigration.

Like the other candidates, he thinks that the lingering effects of the state’s Proposition 187 issue, a Republican-backed referendum that proposed to stop illegal immigrants from receiving social services, will go away.

The measure was approved by voters in 1994 but was successfully overturned in a legal challenge four years later. That issue alienated many Hispanics and gave Democrats a political bazooka to use whenever ethnic politics came up.

When Tim Escobar goes door-knocking in a leafy neighborhood of the L.A. suburb of La Mirada, he tells residents proudly of his Republican affiliation. And he tells his potential constituents that he is trying to unseat first-term Rep. Linda T. Sanchez — Loretta Sanchez’s sister — in the state’s 39th District.

“I’m just a normal guy who wants to go to Washington,” he tells a resident named Frank, who doesn’t give away his political affiliation.

Frank has an American flag outside his one-story ranch home proclaiming “We support our troops.” And on his white Chevy van, he has a Teamsters sticker.

“This district is registered 57 percent Democrat, 29 percent Republican and is 60 percent Hispanic,” Mr. Escobar says later. When he spoke to a living room full of Hispanic residents in nearby Lynwood earlier this year, “they were listening to their first Republican.”

Ask him what the governor’s help would mean in a race that may be tight, and the candidate’s campaign manager jumps in as Mr. Escobar smiles broadly.

“Arnold is the kingmaker now,” said the manager, Mark Sturdevant.

Mr. Schwarzenegger received 31 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote in last year’s recall election, which most credit to his action-figure appeal.

His election galvanized the state’s diminished Republican Party. A recent fund-raiser with Mr. Schwarzenegger as headliner garnered $2.2 million for the party.

Today’s 7.65 percent gap in voter registration between Republicans and Democrats is the narrowest since the 1930s.

Some state Republicans are so confident that they believe President Bush can take the state in November. Party chiefs, off the record, doubt such a thing.

“I applaud [California Republican Party Chairman] Duf Sundheim for rolling out these Hispanic Republicans,” says Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party. “The incumbents do need to watch out, and it’s healthy.”

Still, he said, “California has never been a voting state for Hispanic Republicans. The only people to make inroads there are Ronald Reagan, first as governor and then as president, and now Arnold.”

Mr. Torres, a savvy veteran of ethnic politics, adds: “And 187 is still an issue and it continue to resurface. It is still a problem.”

The cadre of Hispanic Republican candidates says it simply isn’t so.

“It’s dead,” Mr. Escobar said. “It only comes up when Democrats talk to each other.”

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