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Hispanic community goes Republican in latest election

Overlooked amid all the good news for the Republican Party on Nov. 2: After losing the Hispanic vote in 2008 and 2006 in Florida, the GOP got it back in 2010.

In the U.S. Senate race, Hispanic voters favored Cuban-American Republican Marco Rubio by 55 percent, while supporting Gov. Charlie Crist by 23 percent and Democrat Kendrick Meek by 21 percent. Republican Rick Scott won 50 percent of the Hispanic vote, two points ahead of Democrat Alex Sink in one of the closest governor's races in Florida history.

Look for the Republican Party to try to build on its appeal to Hispanic voters in 2012, when the nation's fastest-growing minority group will help decide whether President Barack Obama gets a second term.

"It's very difficult for any Republican candidate to win a general election without paying attention to and doing well with Hispanic voters,'' said Jeb Bush Jr., son of the former governor and co-founder of SunPAC, a new political committee aimed at Hispanic Republicans. "I'm very excited about encouraging Hispanics around the state to become part of the process.''

Cuban-American Rep. Luis Garcia of Miami Beach was one of the few Democratic candidates who won tough races in what he called a "disastrous year for Florida Democrats.''

Not since George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 with 56 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida has the Republican Party done so well among Hispanics.

"This concerns me greatly because the future of our party rests with our ability to win over Florida's Hispanic communities, especially the Cuban-American community in South Florida,'' Garcia wrote in a letter to the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, Karen Thurman, who announced Friday plans to retire.

Calling for new party leadership, Garcia added, "It is perfectly apparent to any political layperson that the current Florida Democratic Party is out of touch with the voting electorate.''

Republicans also fared well in other states with large Hispanic populations. Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval won in Nevada, while Gov.-elect Susana Martinez of New Mexico became the nation's first Hispanic female governor. Along with Rubio, these statewide Hispanic officeholders come from battleground states won by Obama in 2008.

But at the same time, Hispanic voters helped the Democratic Party retain control of the U.S. Senate by backing the re-elections of Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada and Sen. Barbara Boxer in California. National exit polls showed Democrats had a 2-1 advantage over Republicans in U.S. House races among Hispanic voters.

"The mistake that people always make is assuming that Hispanic vote is monolithic, and it's not," said Albert Martinez, a Republican consultant to Rubio. "Hispanics are just like any other voter, and you need to appeal to them on the issues. You can't take for granted that they're going to vote Democratic or Republican.''

Obama won Florida with about 57 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2008 presidential election. Democrat Bill Nelson captured 58 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2006 election to the U.S. Senate.

Defying conventional wisdom, Rubio and Scott won over Hispanic voters despite tough stances on immigration. Rubio came out against the so-called "Dream Act,'' which would allow the children of undocumented workers to become citizens if they attend college or serve in the military. Scott vowed to bring an Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration to Florida.

"No one can say that someone's position on immigration will cost them the Hispanic vote in Florida,'' said Carlos Curbelo, state director for outgoing Sen. George LeMieux and a supporter of the 2006 immigration reform. "Immigration is not a core issue for Florida Hispanics.''

With unemployment in Florida hovering near 12 percent, the economy dominated the 2010 campaign. Rubio deftly wove his immigrant, up-from-the-bootstraps background into his call to reduce federal spending. He balanced his no-amnesty stance with gratitude for his hard-working exile parents.

"One of the things we prided ourselves on was that the message was identical in English and Spanish about preserving American exceptionalism for the next generation, and Hispanics often understand that better than most,'' said Martinez with the Rubio campaign.

Scott, who had never run for office before, burst onto Florida's political scene with a wave of ads touting the Arizona law, which requires immigrants to carry their citizenship documents. But after Scott won the Republican primary and started going after Democratic and independent voters, he never raised the issue. Every time he was asked about immigration, he quickly pointed out that his running mate, Rep. Jennifer Carroll, legally immigrated from Trinidad.

Only in the final days of the campaign did Sink run an emotionally charged Spanish-language ad that sought to use the Arizona law to turn Hispanic voters against Scott.

"The immigration issue was a loaded gun lying on the floor, but Alex Sink stepped right over it and never pulled the trigger and Scott masterfully hid it under the rug,'' said Ana Navarro, a Republican who has lobbied for immigration reform.

Reducing the rancor surrounding the immigration debate is one focus of Bush Jr.'s new political committee, which he hopes will include steering committees in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville. Hispanic Democrats currently outnumber Hispanic Republicans by more than 105,000 voters in Florida.

"Right now if you turn on FOX News you'll see the Sarah Palins of the world giving sound bites to kick the illegal immigrants all out, with all these negative connotations.

That makes Hispanics turn away from the party,'' Bush said. "I don't think we're going to be able to get the whole Republican Party to agree on immigration, but we can try change the tone of the debate.

Hispanic community goes Republican in latest election 11/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 15, 2010 5:31pm]
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