11/08/2010 05:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Latinos and the Election: Piñatas or Harbingers?

Reflecting on the mid-term election 72 hours afterward gives us some room to evaluate what it all meant for Latinos. At times, it seemed that we were the piñatas of the season and, in some instances, we seemed to be the harbingers of something new.

We were piñatas in many campaign ads especially the ones aired by defeated Nevada Republican and Tea Partier Sharron Angle in the U.S. Senate race against Harry Reid. One of her ads showed white college students being menaced by hard-core gang-looking Latinos. It was so bad that Rachel Maddow called it the "most overtly racist ad of this campaign season."

Nevada seems to take the cake for dissing Latinos. A conservative group, Latinos for Reform, ran an ad there urging Latinos not to vote because Democrats hadn't passed comprehensive immigration reform. Although the Latino head of the group later admitted they could have reworked the wording of the ad, he still stood by the basic message.

And it wasn't just Angle who used Latinos as scary props in campaign advertising. Even California's Latino Republican Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado, the son of migrant farm workers from Mexico, ran an ad with shadowy looking undocumented Latino types that he labeled criminals as he accused his opponent Democrat Gavin Newsom of failing to enforce the law as Mayor of San Francisco. Newsom won that race. Republican Steve Cooley in his race against Democrat Kamala Harris for California Attorney General also used the smear that illegal immigrants are criminals. (That race is still undecided.)

In too many instances in this election season, Latinos were more like props than the authors of their own fate. Nationally, Latinos were 8% of the vote, a bit higher than in the 2008 election and 2 points more than in 2006. To understand if Latinos were harbingers in this election, it's helpful to look at the election in some key states.

In New Mexico, where Latinos are 38 percent of the vote they helped elect the first Latina Governor of any state, Susanna Martinez, a conservative Republican with Tea Party connections. In Nevada, where Latinos are 14 percent of eligible voters, they gave only 33% of their vote to the first Latino Governor of the state, Brian Sandoval, a traditional country club Republican. And, in Florida, Cuban-Americans helped send rising star and Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate.

Interestingly, while Martinez, Sandoval and Rubio are historic wins, they also represent a strategic decision on the part of the GOP to court Latinos and increase their share of the growing Latino vote especially in key states such as Florida, New Mexico and Nevada. To keep the Latino vote in play, the GOP needs to shave just a few percentage points off the Democratic votes to maintain a winning edge.

Were we piñatas or harbingers this election season? It turns out we were both. The anti-Latino immigrant meme still has juice and we can be certain that we haven't seen the end of that image in campaign advertising. And it's also clear that the Rovian playbook will include strategic ways to elect conservative Latinos as eight Latino Republicans are on their way to the House (and blacks, too, as two African-Americans became the first Southern black Republicans elected to Congress since Reconstruction). I guess in conservative circles people of color are all right if they're on the right. Despite the Latino Republican wins, Latinos still tilted toward Democratic congressional candidates by a two to one advantage: 64 percent to 34 percent.

The takeaway from the election results is that Latinos need to increase their levels of voting. The number of eligible Latino voters in the U.S. is over 19 million but the Pew Hispanic Center tells us that in 2006 only one-third of eligible Latino voters even bothered to vote and that hasn't increased much in the last two elections. We may be concentrated in key powerhouse states -- two of every three of us live in California, New York, Texas and Florida -- so the power is in our hands. The question is: do we like being eternal piñatas at someone else's party? Only we can decide. If we're not proactive, we always will be piñatas or, at best, fronts for the conservative agenda.

We deserve more and here's one big reason why: a special report released just a few weeks before the election by the Center for American Progress Action Fund indicated that the U.S. Census' most recent data show that Latino families experienced the largest one-year increase in poverty in 2009, the highest of any group in the country. Hardest hit were children. In 2009 poverty was at its highest level for Latino children since 1997. It's a commonly held belief that because of the large population increase of Latinos that today's children will be tomorrow's workers and taxpayers.

Bottom line: if we don't vote in our true numbers, we can't expect policies to change. Given the rising poverty rate for Latino children, the stubborn recession and general apathy, Latinos still displayed some resilience and made a difference in some key races. That's good but it's still not enough given the stakes.