The growing Latino electorate is part of the country's political destiny; it's estimated that every year for the next 20 years another 500,000 U.S.-born Latino youth will reach voting age. The fight for the Latino community's vote will definitely be a vicious one, and the midterm elections provided a glimpse into what we can expect for 2012.
Latino voters in the West saved the Democrats from what would have been total obliteration in the midterm elections last week, that much we know for sure now. Pollsters found that Latinos were galvanized by GOP candidates Sharron Angle and Meg Whitman's anti-immigrant bullying, and turned out to vote for Democrats who've been friendlier on immigration issues.
But elsewhere around the country, Democrats fared less well, even in places with large Latino populations. Case in point? Florida, where first-time candidate and former hospital executive Rick Scott, who favored an SB 1070-style law for Florida and was hit with the largest Medicare fraud fine ever, beat Democrat Alex Sink by a single percentage point.
"Florida is a mess," Gaby Pacheco, an organizer with the online Latino organizing group Presente.org told me last week. "Democrats lost the opportunity to have Alex Sink as the next governor because she didn't pay attention to the Latino community. This is a warning sign to everybody in the country, they need to start paying attention to the Latino community." Sink's loss serves as a tough lesson that candidates ignore Latino voters at their own peril.
Florida also complicates the electoral picture because of Tea Party-backed Republican Marco Rubio's win. Politico had a piece this weekend discussing the Rubio campaign as the GOP "template" for 2012. Rubio won a majority of the Latino vote by doing extensive Latino voter outreach and by not selling out to cheap anti-immigrant demagoguery--and also by not advertising too widely his immigration-restrictioninst agenda.
It's not so much that Latino voters love Democrats, they just can't stand being demonized by the Republican Party. Prior to October, when Meg Whitman's nannygate scandal exploded her campaign, Whitman was actually polling decently among Latinos. She had paid for millions of dollars worth of Spanish-language ads on the radio and television that showed her hanging out with kids of color in their classrooms and having chats with Latina moms in their kitchens. After the billionaire's former housekeeper Nicky Diaz came forward and accused Whitman of firing her when she realized that Diaz's undocumented status was a political liability for her campaign, Whitman's numbers plummeted among Latinos.
And it won't be enough for Democrats to assume that Republicans' anti-immigrant scapegoating will make their comparatively tame positions toward the Latino community glow any brighter. Democrats will also have to work to earn the Latino vote come 2012.
"Democratic candidates cannot take the Latino vote for granted," the National Association of Latino Elected Officials' Rosaline Gold told me last week. "They are going to have to reach out, to engage and continue to address the issues that are important for Latinos."