LAS VEGAS--Although the Republican primary process has barely begun, Mitt Romney is looking like the inevitable nominee. This Saturday, he's expected to repeat his 2008 triumph in the Nevada caucus, winning a state that will be decisive in the fight for the White House in November, and where the Latino vote will be instrumental.
Latinos represent 27% of the population in Nevada, and 15% of voters eligible to cast ballots in November.
Attention has already centered around what the race between Romney and Barack Obama will look like here. Obama won 76% of the Latino vote in the 2008 elections, with 22% going to Republican John McCain. Among all voters, Obama won 55% of the vote to McCain's 43%.
Immigration played a central role in that election, as Obama's promise to move comprehensive immigration reform mobilized Latino voters, especially naturalized citizens, to support him in Nevada and other key states.
Many Latinos in Nevada aren't just facing high unemployment rates and the housing crisis, but also the lack of those expected reforms.
Some Democrats recognize that the failure to pass immigration reform poses a challenge for Democrats in their efforts to mobilize the Latino vote in Nevada.
But they reason that the Republican candidates--particularly presumptive nominee Romney--aren't offering a viable alternative to Latino voters. To the contrary, they're making Democrats' jobs easier by mobilizing Latinos to vote against their hard-line policies.
Romney, for example, opposes comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act, which have overwhelming support among Latino voters. One of Romney's (unpaid) advisers on immigration policy is Kris Kobach, architect of the harshest anti-immigrant laws in the country-including those in Alabama, Arizona and South Carolina--and of the concept of "attrition through enforcement," "which consists of making life impossible for undocumented immigrants so they will decide to leave the country, even if it means separation from their families. Others call this "self-deportation."
Vicenta Montoya, of the group Sí Se Puede Democratic Caucus, admits that it's possible that some Latinos who voted for Obama in 2008 will decide not to vote this time, "but I don't think they're going to vote for a Republican. It's ridiculous, because what Republicans are saying goes totally against the Latino community," she said.
And Republicans shouldn't underestimate the power that immigration has to mobilize Latino voters in these parts.
Maybe they should make a call to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who retained his seat--and a Democratic majority in the Senate--in November 2010 when Nevada's Latinos supported him at the polls and led him to defeat Republican Sharron Angle, who ran an anti-immigrant campaign that portrayed immigrants as criminals.
In that same election, Nevada elected Republican Brian Sandoval to the governorship. Republicans rapidly began to use Sandoval as an example of how Republican candidates could get elected in states with large Hispanic populations. What Republicans didn't realize was that Sandoval won only 15% of the Latino vote in his state, thanks to his support for SB 1070 in the neighboring state of Arizona.
According to Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, the oldest Hispanic political organization in Nevada, the next Republican nominee won't put up much of a fight against Obama for the Latino vote in the state.
"It's one of the reasons why Latinos don't show up to the caucus, because the Republican Party offers nothing positive to our community," he added.
To Romero, Latinos' choice in November is clear. "Even though many [Latinos] say they're not going to vote, they know that any of the four Republicans in the race is in favor of hurting us. We have no other option," he said.
And if Romney is the nominee, "when all the negative things he's said about our community come out, I don't think that people who have friends, relatives, loved ones, neighbors who are undocumented are going to support Romney."
Even, he added, if Republicans put a Hispanic on the ticket as Romney's running mate: Florida Senator Marco Rubio or Governors Sandoval of Nevada or Susana Martinez of New Mexico.
"Sandoval's the one who's gotten the least involved on the issue of immigration, and since supporting SB 1070 in 2010 he hasn't said anything, either positive or negative. And if Brian, the most moderate of the three of them, didn't get support from Latinos in his own state despite the fact that his last name is Sandoval, it's going to be very tough for Romney. Rubio's suddenly softening his rhetoric a little, but it's too late because we already know what's in his heart. And on Martinez, no comment. Her actions say it all," Romero explained.
Alex Garza, the vice president of Hispanics in Politics--and a Republican--said that "what's happening is that the rhetoric is out of control."
In his opinion, Democrats have been able to use the immigration issue to their advantage, even though they ultimately haven't kept their promises of reform. But on the other side of the aisle, "the Republican Party shouldn't promote policies of family separation. Self-deportation isn't possible," said Garza, whose father was legalized under Ronald Reagan's 1986 amnesty.
This year, said Garza, we will see a fierce fight for the Latino vote. He anticipates that while many Hispanic Democrats will stay loyal to their party, others will continue to register as independents--the largest swing group of voters that may decide the election.
The fight to win the West has already begun.
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