The Rise of the Anti-Amnesty Hispanic Republican

| Wed Jun. 2, 2010 9:40 AM EDT

New Mexico District Attorney Susana Martinez has become the country’s first Hispanic woman to be nominated for governor by either Democrats or Republicans—and she triumphed in Tuesday’s GOP primary by taking a hard-right stance on immigration. During the contest, Martinez attacked her leading opponent, former state GOP chair Allen Weh, for being soft on the issue. Martinez seized upon Weh’s support for George W. Bush’s guest worker proposal for non-citizens as proof that he backed “amnesty.” Weh, who received Karl Rove’s backing in the race, dismissed the attack, saying that he opposed any pathway to legalization. But Martinez, who picked up Sarah Palin’s endorsement, continued to hammer away at Weh on immigration in television attack ads to bolster her hardline credentials.

Martinez’s right-wing views on immigration and other social issues mirror those of another ascendant Hispanic Republican and Tea Party favorite—Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio, who’s aired similar criticisms of “amnesty” and also supports Arizona’s harsh immigration law. Though most Latino voters strongly disagree with such views, the conservative base has rallied behind both candidates. Backers include a donor behind the “Swift Boat” campaign against Sen. John Kerry during his 2004 presidential run, who made a hefty contribution to Martinez.

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Immigration will continue to loom large in New Mexico’s general election, as Martinez has already accused her Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, for encouraging illegal immigrants to come to the state and being weak on border security. Denish has tried to distance herself from the policies supported by her boss, Governor Bill Richardson, who signed bills allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and receive free in-state tuition through a scholarship lottery. Martinez is campaigning on the repeal of both provisions, and Denish has been put on the defensive, saying that she’d support “making changes” to the laws to prevent fraud.

Much of the media attention to the race has focused on the candidates’ gender—either way, New Mexico will elect its first female governor, and it’s only the third gubernatorial race in US history between two female candidates. But the more intriguing trend may be the emergence of another conservative Hispanic leader who’s made headway by breaking away from the views of a Democratic-leaning Latino constituency.