A 10-year-old girl walks into her home, where her young Hispanic parents greet her. The conversation soon turns to voting.
“¿Papá, tú votas?” she asks. (Dad, do you vote?)
“¡Sí! Pero sólo para las personas buenas!” he replies. (Yes! But only for the right people!)
The daughter, curious, asks who the right person is. And because this is a radio advertisement paid for by the campaign of Democratic US Rep. Martin Heinrich, who is vying against former Republican US Rep. Heather Wilson for a critical US Senate seat, the father goes on to explain that he’s voting for Heinrich.
Heinrich’s first Spanish-language advertisement was an explicit appeal to a growing Latino voting bloc that, nationally and in New Mexico, is becoming increasingly important to the political class. In 2010, according to the US Census Bureau, Latinos comprised roughly 46 percent of New Mexico’s population. New Mexico has a higher percentage of Latinos than any state in the nation—and it’s still growing. According to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, from 2004-2008, New Mexico experienced the largest increase in the share of eligible voters who are Latino of any state, with a 9 percentage-point jump.
To win, candidates in New Mexico typically must capture a large share of the Latino vote.
Nevertheless, in key races, Republicans are not putting a full-court press for the Latino vote.
Wilson, for instance, hasn’t aired a Spanish-language advertisement. And the campaign head for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s New Mexico operation, 2010 lieutenant governor candidate JD Damron, says that, in the West, Romney’s team is focusing on states like Colorado and Nevada.
“New Mexico is not at that level,” he says.
By at least one measure, that makes sense: Latinos in New Mexico have been showing up less frequently at the polls. In the 2004 presidential election, 56.8 percent of voting-age Latinos cast a ballot, compared with 53.7 percent in the 2008 presidential election, according to the US Census Bureau. And in the 2006 midterm elections, 51.7 percent of Latinos cast a ballot; in 2010, only 35.5 percent did.
Still, the national immigration debate could galvanize New Mexican Latinos to the voting booth this year. President Barack Obama recently announced that the federal government plans to stop deporting most undocumented immigrants under the age of 16. Romney, at a conference held by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, recently said he would allow a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants serving in the military or who earn advanced degrees. (He didn’t comment on whether he would repeal Obama’s sweeping order.)
And on June 25, the Supreme Court struck down most of Arizona’s immigration law, but upheld the controversial provision that allows police to check the status of people they suspect of being illegal immigrants.
Gabriel Ramon Sanchez, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, says immigration became a wedge issue after the passage of state laws like Arizona’s.
Sanchez predicts that New Mexico will be less of a presidential battleground this year because of the increase in Hispanic voters in the overall electorate. In 2008, New Mexico’s Latino voters heavily favored Obama, with 69 percent voting for him. Polls show Obama still maintains a 15-percentage-point lead over Romney among all New Mexicans.
So what’s the Republican strategy with New Mexico’s Latinos?
“It’s going to be about the economy; it’s going to be about jobs,” Damron says of the presidential race. “Whether you’re Hispanic or Anglo or Native American, that’s the name of the game.” That strategy extends to the Senate race, too.
“I think you’ll find [that] what’s on everybody’s mind right now is jobs and the economy,” says Christopher Sanchez, Wilson’s communications director. “Hispanic voters care about what everybody else is worried about.”
Donors from across the nation have already plowed millions of dollars into the campaigns of Wilson and Heinrich—indicating both sides anticipate a tight race, but polls show Wilson trailing her opponent by about 4.5 percent.
Wilson’s stance on immigration is decidedly more nuanced than Arizona’s law (or, for that matter, Romney’s “self-deportation” gaffe).
“While I do not support amnesty, and never have, 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,” reads a statement issued by the Wilson campaign in response to the Obama administration’s new immigration policy. “Unfortunately, the decision today is temporary and leaves many questions unanswered. Because of that uncertainty, I think it is unlikely that many young people will apply for this program.”
Heinrich, who has supported DREAM Act legislation, tells SFR he supports Obama’s recent immigration order, but also says more comprehensive immigration reform is needed from the legislative branch.
Still, like Republicans, he emphasizes jobs when courting Latino voters.
“The number one issue in their mind is not unlike those in the rest of this country: it’s jobs,” he says. “That is the issue that I hear time and time again from Hispanic voters across the state.”