- 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.

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.

Univision Networks President Cesar Conde has made political coverage a top priority, beginning with the company’s first presidential debate in 2008. He sees 2010 as something of a curtain-raiser. The network is airing debates hosted by English-language media in New York and Illinois.

“We need to step up our efforts to ensure that the Hispanic swing vote is best equipped to make responsible and informed decisions,” he said.

Univision was at the center of another Spanish-language political controversy, refusing to air ads by an independent GOP Latino group urging Hispanic voters in Nevada not to vote this fall. The group argued that neither incumbent Democratic Sen. Harry Reid and Republican challenger Sharron Angell deserved Latino support, but President Obama and other Democrats quickly attacked the ad as an effort to suppress Hispanic turnout.

Spanish-language media, particularly TV, holds sway among so many Hispanics in part because mainstream media have often ignored them, except when it came to crime or immigration. For years, it was the only place where Hispanics, even those who prefer to communicate in English, could see themselves reflected.

Democrats like Ms. Sanchez are using the immigration issue to hold onto Hispanic voters, warning them that if the Democrats lose their majority in Congress, changes to the nation’s immigration laws won’t even get an airing, let alone become law.

Republicans hope to blunt the idea that they are anti-Hispanic, a perception caused by some in the party who have used the border security debate as a referendum on Latinos and immigrants.

Toward that end, former Republican House Speaker and potential 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has appeared on Mr. Ramos’ Sunday show and discussed support for some path to legal status for those in the country illegally. He has also started a Spanish-language blog.