Latino Voters Save the West for Democrats

Exit polls suggest Harry Reid and Jerry Brown owe Latinos their jobs. Will they remember that fact?

By Julianne Hing Nov 03, 2010

While last night’s election was dismal for the Democratic Party across the country, things looked quite different in California, Colorado and Nevada, where Democrats won key races that many expected them to lose. Political analysts have long been hailing the growing power of the Latino vote, but the numbers from these western races seem to make it clear now: Latinos brought it home for the Democrats and saved what would have otherwise been much closer races for both Jerry Brown and Harry Reid. 

That’s a fact that Latino advocacy groups are more than ready to boast about today.

"From the exit polls and turnout data we do think that that Latinos were crucial to victories in both of those states," said Rosaline Gold at the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, referring to Nevada and California.

Gary Segura, who runs the polling group Latino Decisions, put it more bluntly: "The GOP wave stops in California."

In California, Democrat Jerry Brown beat Republican Meg Whitman for the gubernatorial seat by 53.8 percent to 41.2 percent. Reid held off Sharron Angle in Nevada’s senate race by a tighter 50.2 to 44.9 margin. According to a Latino Decisions poll–paid for by the National Council of La Raza, SEIU, and America’s Voice–Latinos backed Brown by a margin of 86 percent to 13 percent, giving him a 13.5 point boost. In Nevada, Latinos voted for Reid over Angle by a nine to one margin.

Even by more conservative estimates, Latinos overwhelmingly backed both Democrats. CNN reported that 70 percent of Latinos supported Brown, and that in a state where Latinos make up more than one in five voters, their support was key to his win. CNN reports that the same percentage of Latinos voted for Reid.

Segura of Latino Decisions noted that the margins of victory for both Brown and Reid were approximately equal to the share of the Latino vote they won. "According to our calculations about 10 percent of the overall vote were Latinos voting Democrat," Segura said. "Latino margins far exceeded the margins of Reid’s win," he said.

Both races ended up hinging on immigration in unexpected ways.

For all of Angle’s extreme ideas about privatizing Social Security and dismantling the Department of Education, immigration ended up at the forefront of the Reid-Angle race. Angle gambled on anti-immigrant demagoguery by releasing a series of ads that relied on racialized stereotypes of immigrants and Latinos as law breakers and criminals who stole resources from white people.

"The hatred that she put out toward the Latino community really backfired for her," said Gaby Pacheco, an organizer with the Latino advocacy group, who was stationed in Las Vegas for Latino voter turnout in the days leading up to the election. Pacheco said that the ads were so repulsive that they ended up galvanizing Latinos to vote for Reid.

"People saw, if I don’t go out and vote, then I’m kinda going to allow whatever Sharron Angle is portraying our community as to be what our community really is," Pacheco said. News reports of GOP-affiliated efforts to discourage Nevada’s Latinos from voting may have played a role in ironically encouraging the vote as well.

In California, many highlighted the Sept. 29 revelations that Whitman had fired her former housekeeper Nicky Diaz after she realized Diaz, who is undocumented, was a political liability. Whitman would not take responsibility for her relationship with Diaz. She first blamed the Brown campaign for the controversy, and ultimately blamed Diaz herself. Days before the election, Whitman called for Diaz’s deportation.

"They got a different narrative about Whitman," said Fernando Guerra, a professor from Loyola Marymount University who conducted an exit poll of Latino voters in the Los Angeles area. "To me that is what changed the election then and there. It wasn’t just Latino voters, but especially Latino voters saw her challenged for the first time, and saw how she reacted."

"It was deeply disrespectful to Latino communities," said Segura.

Indeed, Brown’s numbers jumped from September to October as Whitman’s started to fall precipitously. According to Public Policy Institute of California numbers, Brown’s support increased among Latinos from 32 percent in September to 51 percent in October. A Los Angeles Times/USC poll showed that Brown had a 20-point lead among Latino voters in September, which grew to a 34-point lead in October.

"Anti-immigrant attacks just don’t pay off," said Mike Garcia, president of SEIU United Service Workers West. Garcia said that Latino voters were turned off by Whitman’s two-faced tactics, her well-known scheme of saying one thing in Spanish to Latino voters–that she opposed Arizona’s SB 1070–and another while courting white voters in English with her anti-immigrant platform.

"One of the lessons that candidates are learning is that in states like California and Nevada, you cannot win statewide elections if you do not have a viable strategy to reach and engage Latino voters," said Gold.

But it’s not enough to just get bilingual advertisements. Whitman, who spent a record $160 million on her campaign, $140 million of which was her personal cash, appeared on Telemundo and Univision almost every day. "Latino voters were paying very close attention this year to what candidates were saying." 

It’s likely they will not forget. Just days before Election Day, Harry Reid took to Univision and promised to push the DREAM Act in a lame duck session, whether he won or lost. Whether it will pass is another matter, but it’s a promise immigrant communities and Latinos will likely hold him accountable for making.

Now that Brown and Reid are back in the saddle, they’ll no longer have the buffer of anti-immigrant demagogues to act as a foil. "Democratic candidates cannot take the Latino vote for granted," Gold said. "They are going to have to reach out, to engage and continue to address the issues that are important for Latinos."