The ascendancy of Hispanic Republicans


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The midterm election was a watershed event for what is usually a lonely group of dissidents. These are people who belong to two distinct communities that are at odds with one another. One group worries that the dissidents are defined by their ethnicity, while the other worries that they are running away from it.

They are Latino Republicans, and their ranks are growing. With one notable exception — the loss by California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado to Democrat Gavin Newsome — Latino Republicans made phenomenal gains across the country. In fact, when the 112th Congress convenes in January, it will include as many as nine Latino Republicans — a record number, some of them supported by the Tea Party.

By now, just about everyone knows the name Marco Rubio, the 39-year-old Cuban-American from a refugee family who was elected to the U.S. Senate from Florida.

Also in Florida, Republican David Rivera was elected to fill an open seat in the House of Representatives. In Nevada, Republican Brian Sandoval was elected the state's first Latino governor. In Texas, where there are currently no Latino Republicans in the state House of Representatives, four were elected. Also in the Lone Star State, two Latino Republicans — Francisco Canseco and Bill Flores — were elected to the U.S. House, defeating veteran Democratic lawmakers.

In Washington, Republican Jaime Herrera will become the first Latina to represent her state in Congress. In Idaho, Republican Raul Labrador will become the first Latino to serve in Congress from that state. New Mexico topped them all. Three Latino Republicans were elected to statewide offices in the Land of Enchantment — Dianna Duran as secretary of State, John Sanchez as lieutenant governor, and rising star Susana Martinez as governor.

What does it all mean? I put that question to Frank Guerra, a San Antonio-based GOP marketing and communications strategist who has worked on the last three presidential campaigns.

For one thing, Guerra said, it means there will be a new harvest of Latino officials to help the GOP mend fences with Latino voters. There is a lot of work to be done in that area because most Republicans can't seem to talk about immigration without adopting an anti-Latino tone. Citing exit polls that showed about 33 percent of Latinos voted for Republican candidates nationwide, Guerra takes comfort from the fact that many of these voters don't seem to hold a grudge.

"I expected more of a backlash," he said. "Even with all that noise, somehow, many Latinos didn't abandon us. We should see this as opportunity to build the party of the future."

For Guerra, the election results are another reminder that immigration isn't the only concern that drives these voters.

"Latinos are not tied to just one issue," he insisted. "It can color their view. It can make them passionate during the campaign. But, as the election approaches, they think about what is really going to affect them and their families. And right now, Latinos are feeling what others are feeling, that the country is going in the wrong direction."

But what's important now is the direction that the Republican Party takes from here. If Latinos are still willing to give the party a fair hearing, then the party needs to give them something worth listening to.

"I see an opportunity," Guerra said. "We haven't solved the problem [of alienating Latinos], but we're on the right track."

Maybe so. And, if the GOP is smart, it'll let a new crop of Latino Republicans lead the way.

Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist and an editorial-board member of the San Diego Union Tribune.

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