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Washington Post: New Mexico's Latino Voters Will Determine Next US Senator

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Yesterday, we published the post “State of Play in New Mexico,” from Latino Decision’s Gabe Sanchez, who is also an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and Director of Research. Gabe wrote:

Latinos make up nearly half of the state’s population, and more importantly, comprise nearly 40% of New Mexico’s electorate, the highest ratio in the nation for both categories. Consequently, elections in New Mexico are essentially always dependent on the voting behavior of the state’s Hispanic community.

Today, the Washington Post took a close look at the race for the U.S. Senate seat in New Mexico. Incumbent Jeff Bingaman is retiring. Democratic Congressman Martin Heinrich is running against former GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson for the open seat. And as the Post points out, Latino voters will play a key role in choosing the next Senator — which presents a challenge for Wilson:

Heather Wilson is one of the best Republican candidates, and is running one of the best campaigns for the Senate, anywhere in the country, the experts say. Her bid is built around her biography, her deep understanding of local issues and her history of political independence.

But the former congresswoman faces long odds in her quest to return to Washington because the politics and demographics of her state are stacked against her. Her essential problem is that New Mexico is 47 percent Hispanic, and those voters tend to vote Democratic, particularly in presidential election years. Barack Obama won New Mexico with 57 percent of the vote in 2008.

The article describes Wilson’s 2012 strategy to paint herself as a “different” kind of Republican, one with an “independent streak” (in the candidate’s own words).  But when it comes to things like the President’s new DREAMer protection policy, Wilson seems to be taking her talking points directly from the Romney playbook.  She expressed her disapproval for theprocess, but hasn’t articulated her position on the policy.  Wilson said: “These are real lives at stake — children who were brought to this country through no decision of their own — and we owe it to them to find a long-term solution. Unfortunately, the decision today is temporary and leaves many questions unanswered.”

We do “owe it to them to find a long-term solution.”  But what about the time being – when ardent DREAM Act opponent Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) continues to block all positive in the House?  Does Wilson support or oppose the Obama policy?

The Post article says that immigration is less of an issue for the Latino voters in New Mexico than other places, but it’s proven to be a galvanizing issue for Latinos across the country.  Heinrich has embraced Obama’s DREAMer policy.  That’s called leadership – staking out a clear position on an important issue, something that will only help him in November:

Roll Call and the Cook Political Report rate the race a tossup, but Heinrich could benefit from the Obama operation here. The president has six offices in the state, and he, the first lady and Vice President Biden have all visited New Mexico this year. “When a lot of folks were running away from the president in 2010, we hosted him in the South Valley,” Heinrich said. “There was so much enthusiasm. It is very hard for Republicans to overcome those demographics in a presidential election year.”

That’s right: In 2012, the Latino vote matters more than ever. The New Mexico Senate race is one key example. If Heather Wilson wants to get Latino votes (and she needs them to win), she has to be a real indepdenent – she can’t follow Romney’s current playbook of ducking immigration issues.  She needs to enunciate actual positions – and embracing Obama’s plan to help DREAMers would be a good start.

You can see how Latinos, a key demographic, will influence the 2012 elections with this interactive map created by Latino Decisions and America’s Voice Education Fund.  Additional analysis is available at Latino Vote Matters.

And, here’s how Huffington Post’s Pollster sees the Heinrich-Wilson race: