MIAMI — Republican Hispanic lawmakers had a groundbreaking year in the 2010 congressional elections, picking up two governor posts — the first ever for a Hispanic woman — while holding onto a U.S. Senate seat and adding several congressional seats.
Latino advocacy groups lauded the addition of a growing and more diverse crop of Hispanic officials. But they also said they were waiting to see whether the new lawmakers would address the most pressing issues facing their communities.
Opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda fueled last Tuesday’s Republican surge, but many also connected Obama’s election to the rise of minority Republican candidates. In South Carolina, the first black Republican was elected to Congress from the Deep South since the 1800s, and the nation’s first Indian-American woman was elected governor.
“Color is becoming less of an issue,” said Richard Ivory, a black Republican political consultant and founder of hiphoprepublican.com. “There was a time when the white electorate saw race first and made judgments based on this alone.”
Overall, with Democratic losses, there was likely to be only a small net gain of Latinos in Congress. Florida’s Marco Rubio will join the Senate’s lone Hispanic member, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez.
“One thing we do know is that it was a good year to be a Republican Hispanic candidate,” said Arturo Vargas, head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “Hispanic Republican candidates rode the Republican title wave. It was coast to coast. The only place they didn’t seem to win was the Pacific Ocean,” he said, referring to California, where Democrats held strong and Republican Abel Maldonado lost his bid for lieutenant governor.
In New Mexico, Susana Martinez was elected as the nation’s first female Hispanic governor. Nevada voters elected Brian Sandoval as that state’s first Hispanic governor.
On the congressional side, Jamie Herrera will become the first Latino congressman from Washington state, while Raul Labrador will be the first from Idaho. House Democrats were defeated by Latino Republicans such as Francisco Canseco, who beat Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, an 11-year House veteran. Also in Florida, state representative David Rivera beat Democrat Joe Garcia, a former Obama administration energy official, to capture an open House seat — one of the few nationwide that Democrats had hoped to pick up.
In Alabama, Democrat Terri Sewell became the first black woman elected to Congress from that state. And in Louisiana, Democrat Cedric Richardson unseated first-term Republican congressman Joseph Cao, the only Vietnamese-American in Congress, in a Democratic-leaning district.
In South Carolina, Nikki Haley was elected governor, becoming the second Indian-American to win a gubernatorial race. She is also that state’s first female governor.
African American Republicans also made significant gains. Fourteen black Republicans were on House ballots nationwide, almost double the number in 2008. Insurance company owner Tim Scott will be the first black Republican to represent South Carolina in the U.S. House since Reconstruction, and in Florida, veteran Allen West ousted a two-term Democrat to a House seat. He will become Florida’s first black Republican in Congress since the 1870s.
“It is very heartening for our country to see this kind of diversity moving forward,” said Hilary Shelton, director to the NAACP’s Washington bureau. He noted that a black Republican has not served in Congress since J.C. Watts of Oklahoma left office in 2003.
Shelton also said it was noteworthy that both West and Scott were elected in primarily white districts.
The same was true for several of the Latino congressional candidates. In some cases they won despite, not because of, the Hispanic vote.
Two-thirds of Hispanic voters in Nevada opted for Sandoval’s opponent, Rory Reid. Hispanic voters there tend to vote Democratic. Sandoval, however, was not helped by reports that, in response to questions about whether his children might be racially profiled by an Arizona-style immigration law, he told Spanish-language media that his children “didn’t look Hispanic.”
Even Marco Rubio, who speaks frequently with pride of his Cuban immigrant parents but also supports the tough Arizona immigration law and a repeal of the new federal health care law, won only a third of Florida’s growing, non-Cuban Hispanics.
Like most Americans, Latinos tend to rate the economy, health care and education among their top priorities, but most voted against candidates who supported harsh enforcement-only immigration laws.
Angela Maria Kelley, a vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, called Latino voters “the firewall that kept the Senate in Democratic hands.”
She and other Latino leaders said Hispanics were key in tight races, particularly in Nevada’s Senate race, where Democrat Harry Reid squeaked by Republican tea party favorite Sharron Angle. In a last-minute campaign push to help show that she was tough on immigration, Angle ran ads featuring scary-looking Hispanic gang members.
“Latinos took great offense to that, and they turned out in great numbers,” Kelley said. An exit poll conducted for the Associated Press in the state showed Hispanic voters breaking heavily in Reid’s favor, but by about the same margin as in 2004.
National Council of La Raza Vice President Eric Rodriguez said lawmakers from both major parties would be wise to seek out Latino and other minority voters and address their issues, as well as support more minority candidates.
“If this is an indication of that, then this is a good thing,” he said.