LAS VEGAS — Democrat Shelley Berkley found herself on a recent Friday night begging a roomful of Hispanic high school students to elect her to the U.S. Senate as a teenage mariachi band stood behind her, waiting for their turn to perform.
"They are a part of the population that is going to be very important to this election," explained Berkley, the granddaughter of Russian and Greek immigrants, after the campaign event aimed at Hispanic-majority high schools in Las Vegas.
Determined to retain their majority in the U.S. Senate, Democratic candidates are trying to replicate the strategy that boosted President Barack Obama's election in 2008 by courting Hispanic voters at cultural events and Spanish-language meetings in swing states across the nation. Republicans need to wrestle only three seats from the Democrats to gain control of the Senate, and Democrats hope ballooning Hispanic populations throughout the Southwest, Midwest and Eastern Seaboard will keep them in power. And if the candidates benefit from Obama's ongoing Hispanic outreach at the same time, all the better.
To woo Latinos disappointed with the floundering economy and stalled immigration reform effort, Democrats on the campaign trail are portraying Republicans as anti-immigrant and anti-middle class, often at events laden with Hispanic cultural touches, including fajita buffets, taco bars and plenty of talk about the immigrant experience.
Hispanics emerged as a pivotal vote in New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Florida in previous elections, but this cycle the Latino focus has extended to Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina, where Hispanics grew by up to 90 percent in the past decade. Those swing states will not only decide whether Obama stays in office, they are also home to the nation's most competitive Senate races.
To counter the Democrat's message, Republican strategists are urging GOP candidates to tone down any rhetoric that could be perceived as anti-immigrant. They argue that if Obama's candidacy benefited some Democrats running in 2008, he could hurt more candidates in 2012.
"They won't have the coattails they claim to have in the Senate races," said Jennifer Sevilla-Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a group trying to persuade Hispanics to vote for conservatives. "It's going to be harder to get Hispanics enthusiastic about coming out to the polls in the first place, that's why they are doing these big drives."
Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, but many now criticize his administration for not creating more jobs or tackling comprehensive immigration reform. Unemployment among Hispanics tops 11 percent and deportations have increased during Obama's presidency.
Senate Democrats, who took control of Congress' upper chamber in 2006, are vulnerable to the same criticism within the Hispanic community. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed to overhaul the nation's immigration system, but has not even been able to persuade all Senate Democrats to endorse such measures, let alone pass immigration reform in the Senate.
Democrats' greatest fear is not that Hispanics will flock to Republicans, but that they will sit the election out, effectively ceding the Senate to the GOP.
"From our perspective, Democrats still have to work to earn their support and they will," said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Obviously, there are larger populations of Hispanics voters in places like Nevada and New Mexico, but from Washington state to Florida this is going to be an important priority for all Democratic campaigns."
The DSCC ran its first Spanish ad of the 2012 election cycle this month in Nevada, slamming Republican Heller for voting against immigration reform. Nevada Hispanics represent one of the strongest Latino voting blocs in the nation, and Reid has said he owes his title as majority leader to that community.
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