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Last week, we released a new report from America’s Voice that examines (and demolishes) the claim that Republicans can maintain a hard line on immigration reform and still court the Latino vote simply by running Latino candidates.
This has been a key theme espoused by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the architect of the failed GOP immigration strategy to date. According to Smith:
“the 2010 election actually paints a very bright picture of the Republican Party’s relations with this country’s growing Hispanic population.”
We’ve urged caution before if the GOP keeps relying on Smith as its leading Latino vote pundit. Here’s why: based on the best data available, it’s pretty clear that the picture isn’t so “bright” after all.
We continue our coverage today with Governor of New Mexico Susana Martinez.
In 2010, Martinez defeated Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, a Democrat, to become the first Latina governor in New Mexico’s history. Martinez won despite a muted, if not hostile, Latino outreach campaign in which she proudly promised to repeal a law permitting undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses. She also opposed extending in-state college tuition to undocumented students living in New Mexico. Her triumph in a lean-Democrat state, along with her background, put her on the GOP poster for diversity along with Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.
Martinez defeated Denish with 53.6% of the vote to Denish’s 46.4%. But according to our report, Martinez actually lost the Latino vote badly, with just 38% of Latinos voting for her while 61% broke for Denish. This means that the net contribution of the Latino vote was 8.5 percentage points in Denish’s favor.
Latinos account for 32.6% of all registered voters in New Mexico. On the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, using more rigorous methodology than the national exit poll, Latino Decisions projected that Latinos would comprise 37% of midterm voters in this state.
The state’s Latino voters lean Democratic: according to a Latino Decisions poll conducted on the eve of the 2010 elections, 61% of Latino voters were registered Democrats, 16% were Republicans, and 22% were independents. In 2004, according to exit polls, John Kerry won 56% of the Latino vote to George W. Bush’s 44%; in 2008, President Obama beat John McCain among Latinos 69%‐30%.
Susana Martinez, the former District Attorney for Dona Ana County, defeated Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish in 2010 to become the first Latina governor in New Mexico’s history. However, with the exception of a Spanish‐language page on her website and one Spanish‐language television ad, in which she discussed prosecuting the abusive family of a murdered six‐month‐old Mexican‐American girl, Martinez’ outreach to Latino voters during the campaign was muted at best and hostile at worse.
Martinez took a hard line on immigration. Language on her campaign website played to fears over border crime, and failed to mention other immigration priorities: “Martinez’s office prosecutes over 600 cases related to border security every year and works with various law enforcement agencies to secure convictions against members of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels. Martinez understands first‐hand the threat these criminals pose to our state and will make securing the border a top priority.” The website also says that Martinez promises to repeal a law permitting undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses and opposes extending in‐state college tuition to undocumented students living in New Mexico.
During the Republican primary, Martinez’ campaign released a television ad attacking opponent Allen Weh’s support for the comprehensive immigration reform bills of 2006 and 2007, calling them an “amnesty plan.” She continued to use the issue to attack her opponent in the general election, Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish. Early in the general election campaign, Martinez released a television ad saying that “a department in Denish’s cabinet gave sanctuary for criminal illegals.”
Since Martinez focused so much on immigration early in her campaign, there was concern that she might turn off moderate voters. A local political columnist wrote in July, “I have heard from many moderate Democratic and independent voters that they’re interested in Martinez’s candidacy. That’s critical, because she can’t win without those voters. Many of those people have told me they don’t know where Martinez stands on most issues. They do know about her far‐right stance on immigration – and it makes them nervous.” However, opponent Diane Denish did not press the issue in the highly contentious general election campaign.
Martinez claimed during the campaign that “My focus has always been on the illegal immigrants who come here with the purpose of committing criminal acts,” but added that there were “an awful lot of individuals” who fit that description. Notably, given her harsh rhetoric on the issue and her state’s proximity to Arizona, Martinez managed to avoid taking a public position on whether she supported SB 1070, Arizona’s harsh immigration law, during the campaign.
Martinez won with 53.6% of the vote statewide to Denish’s 46.4%. But Latino Decisions’ election eve polling showed that 61% of Latinos voted for Denish, while just 38% supported Martinez—meaning that the net contribution of the Latino vote was 8.5 percentage points in Denish’s favor.
Republicans can keep being hardliners on immigration reform if they wish, and make themselves believe that Latino candidates will continue to deliver the Latino vote. But with Hispanics constituting a rapidly-growing demographic, and with candidates’ positions on issues mattering more to voters than their ethnic identity, it’s only a matter of time before the numbers seal the GOP’s fate.