With the 2012 sweepstakes for Hispanic votes under way, President Obama and the Democrats tout a decided advantage. But as more Latino Republicans run for state and local offices — and win — they could persuade Hispanic voters to reconsider their party loyalty.
For many years, the overwhelming majority of Latinos in elected office have been Democrats, due in part to the party's advocacy of social programs and pro-amnesty immigration policies.
Today, elected Latino Democrats outnumber elected Latino Republicans by an 11-to-1 margin, according to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO).
But the ranks of Latino Democrats have thinned over the past five years, while their Republican counterparts have gained.
Since 2006, the number of Hispanic Democratic officeholders has shrunken by nearly 2 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic Republicans in office has increased 22.5 percent.
Hispanic Republican candidates have been especially successful in the kind of targeted, high-profile elections — for Congress and governor — that could influence the 2012 presidential contest. And in statewide offices, Republican Latinos now outnumber Democrats.
On the ground level of a presidential campaign, arguably no politician is more influential than a governor, who is counted on to deliver a state's electoral votes to his or her party's presidential nominee.
In 2006, Democrats held a 6-to-1 edge over Republicans among all Latinos holding statewide office. Today, Republicans hold a 5-to-3 advantage, boosted by the 2010 elections of Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Latinos in both parties credit Republicans' recent successes to the GOP wave that swept through the 2010 midterm elections. Others say the Republicans took advantage of a longstanding problem inside the Democratic Party.
"This has been a consistent Achilles' heel for the Democratic Party, that they haven't been nurturing of Hispanic leadership," says Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO. "That is what this organization that I run has its roots in."
Obama skipped the NALEO annual conference last month in San Antonio. He last appeared in 2008, as a candidate, and hasn't fulfilled the pledge he made then to return as president. He has rankled NALEO leaders by his decision to instead address the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza on Monday in Washington, D.C.
The GOP, on the other hand, has stepped up efforts to be welcoming. Pete Ruiz, executive vice president of Somos (Spanish for "we are") Republicans, says the socially conservative views held by many Hispanic politicians make them fertile ground for GOP recruitment.
"Republicans used to get more into upscale people, for lack of a better word," Ruiz says. "But I think they are trying to change their approach. Also, their original beliefs were more pronounced. By that I mean their original platform — it's more conservative. That appeals to Latinos."
The Republican Party has increased its support of promising Latino candidates as a way of making inroads with Latino voters. And Latinos, now the nation's largest minority group, are expected to factor heavily in next year's elections.
Last week, the Republican State Leadership Committee announced a plan to invest $3 million into the recruitment of 100 Hispanic candidates for state legislative seats across the nation in 2012.
Roughly 22 million Hispanics are projected to be eligible to vote in 2012 — perhaps more — and NALEO says Latino turnout could reach a record 12 million. Other organizations agree.
Both parties are zeroing in on large Hispanic populations in battleground states such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado, where their strong turnouts could easily determine outcomes on Election Day.
In 2008, President Obama won more than two-thirds of Hispanic votes, compared with the slightly more than 50 percent that went to Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004. Kerry lost to President George W. Bush in part because Bush received 44 percent of Latino votes, an unusually large sum for a Republican nominee.
Voter turnout aside, the Democratic Party hasn't been as successful at turning out more Latino officeholders. NALEO's Vargas blames it on the party's failure to support Latinos running for office outside Latino communities.
Democratic Party operatives disagree, citing the party's current support of Ricardo Sanchez, a candidate for Texas' Senate seat. Sanchez, a former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, was recruited by the party. Democratic officials also point to the party's support of former Rep. John Salazar (D-CO), who represented a non-Hispanic majority district until he lost his 2010 re-election bid.
In this regard, Vargas says, the Republicans have been done better. The evidence is in the elections of Sandoval, Martinez and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, each of whom won on statewide coalitions anchored by white voters. Other examples from 2010 include freshmen congressmen Raul Labrador — the first Hispanic elected from Idaho --and Francisco Conseco of Texas.
Nevada Democrat Fernando Romero, a prominent political organizer in the southwest, said Latino Republicans' recent success is merely "circumstantial."
"I don't think Republicans are actually recruiting Latino candidates," Romero says. "In Nevada, three out of five constitutional offices are held by Latinos, and none of them were recruited. They were in the political limelight for some time, and they just happened to be Republican and Latino."
Yet Romero admitted he's "concerned" about his party's struggles with recruitment. "I'm a lifelong Democrat, but I was Hispanic first. I look at that, of course, and I have to say I really have not seen them going out and really recruiting."