Hispanic vote could shift tide

Soledad Salas, left, Maria Arreola, center, and Aristeo Arreola look over paperwork while waiting to meet with a counselor during a recent citizenship workshop at El Centro in Kansas City, Kan. Activists believe thousands of new Hispanic voters could shift the political tide from conservative to liberal.

? Activists are hoping to direct the energy of this spring’s pro-immigration rallies to key swing states, where they believe thousands of new Hispanic voters could shift the political tide from red to blue.

In “purple” districts in states like Kansas, where the Latino population is still relatively small, their voting force could make a big political impact, too. Except no one knows which party they’ll favor.

Take, for instance, Kansas Rep. Dennis Moore, considered a vulnerable Democratic incumbent in a traditionally Republican state. Moore won his seat in 2004 running against a Republican who attacked him for being soft on illegal immigration. This year, he voted for legislation that would make it a felony to be an illegal immigrant – and many Hispanic potential voters took note.

“Given the fact that we have a relatively smaller population, period, we need relatively fewer naturalized citizen voters to make an impact,” said Melinda Lewis, director of policy at El Centro Inc., a Kansas City, Kan.-based nonprofit. “Races in this part of the country can be critical in terms of showing why it’s important to take note of our demographics.”

Changing demographic

A little more than 8 percent of Kansas residents were Hispanic in 2004, according to U.S. Census data. That same year, just 3 percent of voters in Moore’s 3rd Congressional District were Latino, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO.

But at a recent citizenship drive at El Centro’s offices in the city’s Argentine district, a working-class neighborhood where most businesses advertise with brightly colored Spanish-language signs, hundreds of potential new voters stood in line.

One longtime legal resident said she always has considered herself a Democrat, but she plans to pick her candidates based on what they have said about immigrants once she becomes a U.S. citizen.

“I want to vote so politicians know how powerful we are,” said Maria Arreola, a teacher’s assistant in the Kansas City, Kan., school district who was born in Durango, Mexico. “Like, I’ve heard of Dennis Moore before. I’ve always liked him, but he better not be trying to use Hispanics by telling us one thing and doing another.”

Citizenship applications typically take eight months to process, which could mean those registering now still wouldn’t be on voter rolls in November.

Courting the vote

For that reason, in part, the Kansas Republican Party says it’s hoping to fortify its ranks with younger Hispanics, such as Arreola’s 20-year-old son, a U.S. citizen who is already a registered voter.

“Older Hispanics are very faithful to the Democrats,” said Phil Bustillo, chairman of the Kansas Republican Hispanic Council in the 3rd District. “But especially now that the president is so pro-Hispanic and so many of the Hispanics are in the White House, we’re winning a lot of confidence and respect from people who before wouldn’t have listened to us.”

Some Republican candidates for statewide office, such as gubernatorial candidate Jim Barnett, who is a state senator, endorse proposals to make English the country’s official language and oppose granting in-state tuition to undocumented students.

Mike Gaughan, state Democratic Party executive director, said Republicans candidates were too quick to use “immigration as a way to divide Kansans,” and that Democrats better understand new Hispanic voters’ concerns, such as ensuring access to education and affordable health care for all.

Moore still holds more campaign cash than any of his four Republican challengers, who will duke it out in Tuesday’s primary. That may be because GOP leaders are investing more money in competitive congressional districts in Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas and Washington.

In those swing states, House races could hinge on districts where Latinos make up a large percentage of the population, according to NALEO.

“Second-tier cities,” such as Wichita, Des Plains, Ill. and South Bend, Ind., may not have that sway now, but they’ll gain political clout as more Hispanics gain citizenship and the right to vote, said Michael D. Rodriguez, director of field operations for the nonpartisan United States Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago.

In southwest Missouri, for example, the Hispanic population has mushroomed in recent years as immigrants have settled in rural towns such as Noel, which has a Tyson processing plant.

In August, Rodriguez will head to Springfield, Mo., where he’ll train a Hispanic student group to register voters.

“So many Midwestern states are going through demographic and political transitions right now, and who knows where they’re going to end up,” said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “The latent immigrant votes, even in a state like Missouri, could make a difference.”