Hispanics May Swing Some Close Elections

Adriana Garcia, Reuters, Nov. 6, 2006

Hispanic voters in the United States, a growing bloc, could play a key role in deciding close races in at least four states on Tuesday, experts said.

Although they won’t play a decisive role in key races being fought in states with smaller Hispanic populations, they could influence the outcome of a key Senate race in New Jersey, House races in Arizona and New Mexico and a race for governor in Florida, said pollster Sergio Bendixen of Bendixen and Associates.

Regional issues are important in many races, and it’s unclear which party will benefit from their turnout, political analysts said. But some believe the Republican stance on the controversial issue of immigration may hurt the party.

The battle for the New Jersey seat of Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who is being challenged by Republican Thomas Kean Jr., the son of a popular former governor, is a crucial race in the battle for Senate control. Menendez is one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

“You can expect the majority of Hispanics to show up to vote in New Jersey, where they are more than 10 percent of the electorate,” Miami-based Bendixen said.

The border states of Arizona and New Mexico may also see Hispanics influencing the ballots in a year when immigration became a hot political topic.

Arizona was in the center of the immigration debate, and Republican congressional candidate Randy Graf has taken a hardline stance on illegal border crossings in his race against Democrat Gabrielle Giffords.

In neighboring New Mexico, Hispanics could play a key role in deciding whether Republican Rep. Heather Wilson loses her re-election bid to Democrat Patricia Madrid, the state’s Hispanic attorney general.

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Hispanics are the largest minority in the country, but they still lag in political representation. They are estimated to be 14 percent of the U.S. population, but just 8.6 percent of eligible voters in this election, according to Pew Hispanic Center.

Numerically, Hispanics could have a broad influence in U.S. politics, but they haven’t exercised it yet.

A large proportion are either legal immigrants who are not yet citizens or American citizens under 18 years old, so they can’t yet vote, says demographer Jeffrey Passel from Pew Hispanic.

“This is a population that is going to become a larger share of the electorate,” he said.

And it’s still up in the air if the enforcement-only approach on immigration defended by hardline Republicans this cycle may hurt the party. Some say it will.

While most of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States are Hispanic, Bush could not convince his party to vote for a broader immigration reform that would both protect the border and offer immigrants a path to citizenship.

“Watch for the Republicans to tank, to do very poorly among Hispanic voters this year,” said pollster John Zogby.

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