Why 2010's Most Formidable Hispanic Candidates Are Republicans

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

While Republicans have risked alienating Hispanic voters even further by supporting Arizona's harsh new immigration law, the GOP has managed to recruit a better, more prominent crop of Hispanic candidates than the Democratic Party this year. Slate has a good overview of the Hispanic GOP candidates in top-tier races, leading off with Susana Martinez, the Republican gubernatorial contender in New Mexico whose right-wing views include a hard-line stance against illegal immigrants. If Martinez prevails, Democrats should be quaking in their boots, writes Molly Ball:

If she wins in November, she will be the first female Hispanic governor in U.S. history—and an instant national GOP spokeswoman…In addition to Martinez, who currently leads in the polls and has been endorsed by Sarah Palin, there's Marco Rubio, the Tea Party favorite who drove Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Florida, and Brian Sandoval, a former judge who holds a big lead in the Nevada gubernatorial race. Sure, that's only three candidates. But in the 74 elections this year for governor or U.S. Senate—not all of them competitive—there are no Democratic Hispanic nominees. "Republicans have done a great job of recruiting Hispanic candidates," one Democratic strategist told me. "They are giving us a big wakeup call this year."

The GOP's Hispanic candidates won't necessarily be an immediate draw for Hispanic voters, given the group's overwhelming support for Obama and the Democrats in 2008. But it could certainly help the Republican Party seem more diverse and inclusive in what's shaping up to be a banner year for minority GOP candidates. We already know that Nikki Haley will almost certainly become South Carolina's first Indian-American governor, while Tim Scott, the black GOP candidate for Congress in South Carolina's 1st district, stands a great chance of becoming the first black Republican in Congress since former Rep. J.C. Watts retired in 2003.

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That's not to say that the GOP itself is becoming any more moderate by running minority candidates: if anything, such hopefuls have adopted an even harsher tone on issues related to race and immigration, perhaps as an assurance to conservative white voters. As Ball points out, the Martinez campaign has already run a TV ad accusing her opponent of offering "sanctuary to criminal illegals, like child molester Juan Gonzalez." And at least one Hispanic Republican with a moderate record on immigration has been shunned by the Republican establishment: Raul Labrador, a former immigration attorney running against Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), has failed to get the national GOP to pour money into his race and now trails his Democratic opponent by 10 points.

But the crop of GOP Hispanic candidates certainly won't help the Democrats rev up the party's Hispanic base, which has been frustrated with the Dems' failure to enact an immigration overhaul. In the longer term, having prominent Hispanics in office could help the Republican Party start to win back some of the Hispanic voters they lost at the end of the Bush administration. At the least, the Democratic Party should take this development as a warning sign that they can't take Hispanic support for granted.