- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

An estimated 5.6 million Hispanic voters are expected to go to the polls Tuesday with the war in Iraq and the economy — not illegal aliens — as their top concerns in the midterm elections, Hispanic advocacy groups say.

“Immigration is not the No. 1 issue because the vast number of those who are registered and vote are American citizens, and they tend to vote based on the local issues that affect themselves,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund (NALEO).

Many analysts had predicted a severe backlash against Republicans at the polls this year after millions of Hispanics marched to protest the House’s immigration-enforcement bill, but that has not materialized.

In fact, the Associated Press reported this week that a drive by Hispanic rights groups to register 1 million Hispanic voters in the wake of the protest marches fell far short — less than 150,000 voters have been registered, according to an umbrella group coordinating the registration efforts.

The Iraq war is the single-most-important issue driving the Hispanic vote, and 50 percent of Hispanics think it was a mistake, said Michael Bustamante of the Latino Policy Coalition, a group devoted to political analysis of the Hispanic community.

“It is an issue that hits close to home,” Mr. Bustamante said. “It is a mix of things. It’s a patriotic issue, an economic issue with the costs, and given how angry Latinos are with regard to the war, a lot of that will play in the elections.”

Mr. Vargas said the Hispanics — who made up 6.5 percent of the nation’s 142.1 million registered voters in 2004 — will still be crucial in “extremely tight” midterm elections.

In New Jersey, where Hispanics account for 10 percent of the vote, Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, is fending off a serious challenge from Republican Thomas H. Kean Jr..

Their vote will also matter in other key congressional races such as Arizona’s 8th District, which includes Tucson, and New Mexico’s 1st District. Both districts are held by Republicans, but the Democratic candidates are running strong, in large part because of at least 60 percent support from Hispanics in both districts, according to a poll for Mr. Bustamante’s organization.

That poll also surveyed 600 Hispanic voters in 23 states and found them supporting the Democratic candidate over the Republican candidate in their local congressional races 61 percent to 19 percent — an advantage of more than 3 to 1.

While NALEO is predicting a record midterm turnout, other Hispanic groups said the negative rhetoric surrounding immigration could lower turnout significantly.

“It is getting to the point, where we found in our national survey we released Oct. 3, we had 36 percent of Hispanics undecided, and at this stage of the game that means low voter turnout,” said Robert Deposada, president of the Latino Coalition, a research and policy think tank focused on the Hispanic community.

He said 38 percent did not identify with either party.

“A very large chunk of Latinos are becoming independents,” he said. “The immigration talk was a slap in the face and the House Republican rhetoric was so harsh that many registered Hispanic voters who tend to be more conservative — it has alienated people from wanting to identify themselves as Republicans.”

The national immigration debate may have had little effect on this election cycle, but it will not go away and many cautioned that future elections could see a national backlash against House Republicans. Mr. Vargas predicted it could resemble the negative response Republicans faced in California after the 1994 Proposition 187 debacle.

“I think we’re seeing it already this year; we saw a spike in naturalization-application submissions and voter registration we didn’t see in 2005, and that is the same thing that happened in California” Mr. Vargas said.

The Hispanic backlash that occurred in California came after the 1994 campaign to pass Proposition 187, a ballot initiative to deny social services to illegal aliens that turned into a rhetorical anti-Hispanic campaign, backed by former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican.

Hispanic voters, who had tended to vote Republican, began voting Democratic in subsequent elections, and Democrats are keenly aware of it.

“You will start to see the same trend in Republican states like Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, that have marginally gone for Republicans are in huge danger of becoming completely blue because Latinos feel threatened and insulted,” said Maria T. Cardona, a Democratic strategist.

The Republican National Committee has worked diligently over the past three election cycles to court Hispanic voters.

RNC spokesman Danny Diaz said it is far too early to predict how Hispanics will react in future elections and added that it is the overall Republican message that attracts them to the party and not rhetoric.

“Republicans stand for a pro-business principles, for accountability in the classroom and conservative social values that are completely consistent with the majority of Hispanic voters,” he said.

“Ultimately it comes down to how the candidates address these issues.”

Mr. Deposada said while that is historically true, there is a danger for both parities if the immigration debate continues the way it has the past two years, but agreed that it was too soon to make such predictions about future elections.

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