By Bill Lambrecht, San Antonio Express-News
Buoyed by robust voter registration and record early turnouts at polls, analysts and Latino leaders see a breakthrough election unfolding with potential symbolic victories and strides toward building clout to match the expanding Hispanic electorate.
In Nevada, polls show Catherine Cortez Masto virtually tied in her quest to become the first Latina in the U.S. Senate in a contest that could decide control of the chamber.
In Arizona, passionate opposition and his own legal problems appear to have Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on the ropes, a fate many Latinos view as payback for what they regard as his merciless approach to border control over 23 years in office.
“Arpaio has been our Donald Trump forever,” said Alejandra Gomez, leader of the campaign to oust Arpaio, 84, a Republican. “His defeat will send shock waves across the country.”
By all accounts, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s hard-edged proposals including mass deportations and his insults of Latinos beginning the day he declared his candidacy have spurred unprecedented mobilization, reflected in early voting in Texas and elsewhere.
What Trump has triggered, coupled with natural political growth of a constituency that has surpassed 27 million eligible voters, appears certain to smash records for Latino voting. About 13.1 million Latinos of the 16.2 million registered are expected to vote, a 17 percent increase over 2012, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials projects.
The effect could be felt in the presidential election on down.
“We’re expecting a very lopsided vote on Election Day,” said Houston pollster Sylvia Manzano of Latino Decisions, unveiling a survey Thursday showing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leading Trump 70 percent to 17 percent among registered Latino voters nationwide.
“There’s a sense that Latinos as part of the American family is being challenged,” said the National Council of La Raza’s Clarissa Martinez-de-Castro. “There’s a strong feeling that people need to stand up for our family, our community and for the country we want to be.”
Luis Fraga, co-director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, believes that the effect of this election could offer shades of California’s realignment two decades ago after then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s hard-edged “Save Our State” ballot proposition targeting Latinos generated a mass mobilization of voters in California.
Now, in the state that produced two GOP presidents in the last half of the 20th century, Clinton led Trump by 26 points in the last two California polls.
“Perception of threat is among the great mobilizers in the country,” Fraga said.
What remains to be seen, he added, is how much Democrats capitalize on the moment — and what Republicans do henceforth to reassess their appeal to Latinos.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, forecasts dividends for Democrats in Texas legislative races as well as in Pete Gallego’s challenge of incumbent Republican Will Hurd in the closely watched San Antonio-area congressional contest. Two years ago, Hurd unseated Gallego by 2,422 votes, or 2.1 percent.
The Hispanic Electorate by State
The Hurd-Gallego race is in the national analysts’ “toss-up” category amid record-setting early voting in Bexar County last week. More than 192,000 residents voted in the first five days of early voting.
“You’re seeing a stronger turnout among Hispanics in Texas and around the nation,” Castro said. “The community is energized this year after having been scapegoated and slandered by Donald Trump, and also wants to be part of history in electing the first woman president.”
Castro also sees an effect in congressional races featuring non-Hispanic challengers, among them a campaign in Southern California to unseat U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa. The Republican and one of the wealthiest members of Congress inflamed passions on Capitol Hill with partisan investigations as chairman of the Government Operations Committee.
Issa is being challenged by Doug Applegate, a retired Marine colonel and political newcomer, in a district that is 26 percent Latino.
In Nevada, Ruben Kihuen, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, may be on the verge of unseating GOP incumbent Rep. Cresent Hardy and picking up a House seat for Democrats.
Kihuen, 36, is the son of a middle school science teacher who worked as a laborer after bringing his family to the United States. A soccer star in high school, Kihuen started volunteering as a teenager in political campaigns.
At 25, Kihuen defeated a Nevada State Assembly incumbent and six years ago won a seat in the state Senate. He was handed a prime speaking role at the Democratic National Convention in July, a measure of confidence in his candidacy, which is boosted by Democrats’ double-digit voter registration advantage in the Las Vegas-area district.
Cortez Masto, 52, a former Nevada attorney general, could make history for Latinas if she prevails over Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Heck in a neck-and-neck race for the seat of retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
She appeared to have taken a narrow lead over Heck in polls, but an NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist survey last week suddenly showed Heck, a physician and brigadier general in the Army Reserve, with a 7-point advantage.
Latino groups cite faulty polling of Latinos in attacking the validity of that poll, likening it to flawed surveys six years ago that wrongly forecast Reid’s defeat.
With control of the Senate in the balance, the Nevada contest is getting an avalanche of super PAC spending, more than
$6 million in a six-day period through Thursday, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
The GOP-aligned Senate Leadership Fund alone dumped in $2.3 million Tuesday for advertising. Entities funded by billionaires Charles and David Koch added more than $1 million to oppose Cortez Masto, while Planned Parenthood contributed $1 million on her behalf.
In Arizona, Arpaio’s effort to fend off former Phoenix police Sgt. Paul Penzone became further complicated last week when the sheriff was formally charged with criminal contempt of court for violating a judge’s order to curtail racial profiling. Even before the charges, an Arizona Republic poll showed Arpaio trailing by 15 points.
In a television ad that began airing when charges were imminent, Arpaio asserts that his trouble with the Justice Department “is all about illegal immigration. Period. … What a bunch of garbage.”
Last weekend, thousands of Arpaio critics, many from outside Arizona, gathered for canvassing and a rally that included a 15-foot-high inflatable caricature of Arpaio in striped jail garb. They claim to have registered tens of thousands of Latino voters since 2010, when an Arizona law enabling police to question people if they’re suspected of being in the United States illegally became law. Two years later, the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the law.
Meanwhile, Clinton has mounted a surprise late effort in Arizona, which could further spur turnout. Last week, Democrats outpaced Republicans in early voting in Arizona, which hasn’t backed a Democrat for president in 20 years.
Nonetheless, Republicans caution against writing Arpaio’s political obituary. Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, responding to reports of record Latino registration, remarked recently: “They don’t vote.”
History bears that out. Latinos make up nearly 30 percent of Maricopa County but were less than 15 percent of its vote in the 2012 election.
Fighting to survive, Arpaio raised over $12 million for his campaign, his financial disclosure shows. In the primary election last month, he defeated his closest GOP challenger by nearly 40 percent.
“All that money you mention is an indication of support,” said Arizona Republican Party spokesman Tim Sifert.
“There always are assorted groups wanting nothing other than to vote Sheriff Arpaio out. But I can’t see support for him wavering for any reason,” Sifert said.
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