- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2010

As the newly elected Republican class of the 112th Congress gathers at the Capitol this week for freshmen orientation, the group boasts a record six Hispanics - loosening the Democratic Party’s long held grip on the nation’s fastest-growing minority group.

But whether the surge is a one-year anomaly or portends a future of Hispanic GOP pickups in the 2012 election remains to be seen.

“We’re watching this with interest to see whether it is the beginning of a trend,” said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank. “We know that out there there are a significant number of conservative Hispanics willing and eager to move up in the political world, so it’s not at all out of the question to me that we could see an upsurge.”

The midterm results don’t necessarily represent a sudden shift within the Hispanic community to the political right but rather a growing willingness by the general public to consider Hispanic candidates, said Patricia Guadalupe of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.

“Like every other American, Latinos represent all political ideologies and can run as candidates of different ideologies,” she said. “There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter Latino candidate.”

Hispanic Republicans still will be far outnumbered by their Democratic counterparts when the new Congress convenes in January, as the entire 24-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus is Democratic.

And with the notable exception of South Florida Cuban-Americans like Republican Reps. Mario Diaz Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, most Hispanic politicians traditionally have felt more at home with the Democratic Party.

Yet with Hispanic-Americans generally holding socially and fiscally conservative views - and with their strong support of the military - the GOP gradually has been making headway attracting candidates and voters within the community.

“The values of the Hispanic community are more closely aligned with the Republican platform than they are with the Democratic platform,” incoming Texas Rep. Bill Flores, who beat 10-term Rep. Chet Edwards.

In addition to Mr. Flores, Francisco Canseco defeated six-term Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez in Texas and Republican Jaime Herrera became Washington state’s first Hispanic in Congress. And

Republicans Raul Labrador and David Rivera won in Idaho and Florida, respectively.

In the Senate, Florida’s Marco Rubio, whose parents immigrated from Cuba, won his state’s open Senate seat by beating Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic Rep. Kendrick B. Meek.

Mr. Labrador, who beat first-term Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, said Hispanics increasingly are weighing issues rather than party affiliation when voting.

“They are willing to go to either party,” said Mr. Labrador, a Puerto Rico native. “Republicans don’t really care about the ethnicity of the candidate. They’re just looking for the best candidate.”

Mr. Labrador said that while his Republican Party affiliation was considered bit odd when he was younger, it hasn’t been an issue in years.

“I still get some questions about it, mostly out of curiosity, not really because people think it’s weird,” he said. “I think in the last five to 10 years you’re seeing more and more Hispanic-American figures that are running for national office, or state office, as Republicans.”

The “Hispanic” label can get blurry at times. Mr. Flores’ family has lived in the United States longer than most, immigrating to Texas from Spain in 1725.

“I consider myself an American before I consider anything else,” said the ninth-generation Texan. “I can’t help who I am … I am proud of my background, proud of my heritage, but I never made a big deal out of it.”

Bill Schneider, a political expert with Third Way, a centrist Washington think tank, said the success of Hispanic Republican candidates this year doesn’t represent a significant long-term trend. Rather, their victories - like those of all GOP candidates - were tied mostly to the GOP’s success in capitalizing in voter angst over the economy and a desire for change in Washington.

The growing influence within the Republican Party of the “tea party” movement - and its often anti-immigration rhetoric - isn’t helping the party attract Hispanics, he added.

“The problem is Latinos still don’t trust Republicans,” Mr. Schneider said. “And whatever outreach efforts Republicans have made their criticism of illegal immigration does come across often as shrill … and that just creates a very difficult barrier.”

AEI’s Mr. Ornstein agrees that immigration issues pose hurdles for the GOP’s recruitment of Hispanic candidates.

“There has been a radioactivity to the Republican Party [with Hispanics] because of some of the harsh rhetoric on immigration, and that includes policies that hit at legal resident aliens for awhile as well as illegals,” he said. “It’s like [saying] ‘we don’t want your kind here.’ “

But many Hispanic Republican candidates are comfortable holding strong anti-illegal immigration positions. Mr. Labrador and Mr. Flores, who easily won their races, based their campaigns in part on strengthening the U.S. borders’ against illegal immigration.

And while Mr. Rubio last spring said he had “concerns” about Arizona’s tough new immigration law, he later criticized the Justice Department’s lawsuit over the policies as a “waste of resources.”

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