- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

MIAMI | Note to candidates: What plays in Spanish no longer stays in Spanish.

Spanish-language networks and publications are taking on a more prominent role this election season, nabbing debates with major candidates and increasingly seeing their political coverage spin out into mainstream English-language media.

The attention highlights not only the growing influence of Hispanics, the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority group, but also the power of the companies that provide much of their news.

Take recent comments by California Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez during a Sunday morning talk show with Spanish-language Univision Network anchor Jorge Ramos.

Ms. Sanchez told viewers her Republican opponent Van Tran, who fled Vietnam as a child, was anti-immigrant and that the Vietnamese immigrants were trying to “wrest control of the seat.” In previous years, those words might have gone unnoticed outside the Spanish-speaking community.

Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for California governor (left), shakes hands with debate moderator Maria Elena Salinas, before the start of her debate with Jerry Brown on Univision. (Associated Press)
Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for California governor (left), shakes hands with ... more >

This year they were picked up by a blogger, replayed on YouTube and seized upon by Republican Party leaders, demonstrating not just the increased influence of Spanish-language media but also how ever-more-powerful social media has made the information it provides easier to disseminate. Ms. Sanchez eventually apologized for her remarks.

In California, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman hoped to attract Hispanic voters and others during her debate against Democrat Jerry Brown, sponsored by Univision and held in English with translations.

Instead, the former eBay CEO was put on the defensive over accusations she should have known her longtime housekeeper was in the U.S. illegally. The exchange went viral.

Even those who toe a hard line on immigration are seeking to make their case in Spanish-language media, recognizing that they need some Hispanic votes to win and that Hispanics — who account for 9 percent of registered voters nationwide — are concerned about more than that one issue.

During Florida’s primary season, for example, Republican gubernatorial candidates Rick Scott and Bill McCollum had their first debate on Univision, even as they competed to see who could stake out the harshest stance against illegal immigrants.

“The tighter the race — and there are many this year — the more you reach out to niche constituents, and Latinos are niche constituents,” said Texas State University Professor Federico Subervi and author of the “The Mass Media and Latino Politics.”

Mr. Subervi believes the interest in Hispanic media is particularly high for a midterm election because Arizona’s recently enacted tough new immigration law has become such a hot topic.

“People want to know what are Latinos going to do given all this rhetoric,” he said.

But it’s also the result of a concerted effort by companies like Univision to “plant the flag and reach out to mainstream political figures,” said Jose Cancela, head of the Miami-based marketing firm Hispanic USA.

Once Latin American politicians were top among Mr. Ramos’ guests, but on Sunday, his list included Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, whose state is hardly known for its Hispanic population.

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