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.
In New Mexico, Democrats are also targeting first-time Hispanic voters and holding meetings in Spanish with volunteers. Democrats face a competitive Senate primary, but the ultimate victor will likely battle Republican former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson in the general election. Wilson is a close ally of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, one of the GOP's top Hispanic surrogates.
Jamie Estrada, a Republican organizer in New Mexico who worked in President George W. Bush's administration, said Martinez could be Wilson's best weapon in winning the Senate race. New Mexico is 46 percent Hispanic, the highest proportion for any state.
"The Senate race is competitive here and the Hispanic community is going to play an important role," Estrada said. "When Hispanic unemployment continues to outpace national unemployment, the Hispanic community is going to look at that."
In Arizona, Democrats are holding voter registration events at Hispanic supermarkets and weekly phone banks aimed at Latino voters. Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, the son of Puerto Rican parents, is seeking to claim the Arizona Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jon Kyl. Carmona's likely opponent is Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, a longtime supporter of broad immigration reform who has taken a tougher stance since declaring his Senate candidacy. Arizona is 30 percent Hispanic.
In Ohio, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown will try to keep his seat against likely Republican challenger Josh Mandel, the state treasurer. Brown's office has hosted roundtables with Latino leaders on economic and social issues and organized small business workshops with minority business owners in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Toledo. He touts securing funding for El Centro de Servicios Sociales in Lorain, a Hispanic enclave in his former congressional district.
Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, printed bilingual ballots for the first time last year.
"Members of Ohio's Hispanic community are looking for the same things that so many Ohioans are: economic opportunity, affordable and dependable housing, and strong health care and education," Brown said in a statement.
Conservative Republicans are also targeting Hispanic neighborhoods in New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, California, Virginia and Nevada.
"It's as grass roots as you can get," Sevilla-Korn said.
In Nevada, where Reid spent years mentoring young Hispanics activists who helped him win re-election last year, the state GOP has only recently started to fight back. Party leaders have invited young Hispanic conservatives into their fold to teach the older, mostly white membership how to address the Latino community. Their efforts have been fueled by the election last year of Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, the state's first Latino head of state.
But Democrats have the clear advantage. The Obama campaign has long been on the ground in Nevada, hosting meetings in Spanish to urge Hispanics to give him four more years and to elect Democratic candidates to Congress who can enact his policies. At an organizing meeting in Las Vegas last week, volunteers ate fajitas and discussed how Obama was similar to Hispanics, because his father was an immigrant and he values his family, organizers said.
Democrats hope the outreach will help Berkley, who represents Nevada's most Hispanic congressional district, trump Heller next year. During her recent meeting with Hispanic teens, Berkley stressed that her grandparents didn't speak English when they arrived in the United States. She warned that Heller opposed the so-called Dream Act, a measure that would have allowed some illegal immigrants to pursue U.S. citizenship.
"If you care about comprehensive immigration reform you are not going to vote for my opponent," Berkley told the room of 200 students.
They were invited to participate in a mock election, with pop stars Justin Bieber, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull standing in as the imaginary candidates. Shakira and Iglesias tied for first-place.
Heller is not as well known in the Hispanic-rich neighborhoods of the Las Vegas Valley, where most of the state lives, but he has started to reach out, recently setting up a meeting with the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas. That plan backfired when he cancelled the meeting at the last minute to avoid Democratic trackers in the audience.
"The door is wide open," Heller told The Associated Press of the Hispanic community. "It was just a bump in the road. Everything will be just fine."
But Hispanics said Republicans like Heller can't just talk about the Latino community, they need to be there.
"He needs to do a lot of work," said Otto Merida, a Republican who leads the Latin chamber in Vegas. "It's not that I don't like him or I don't dislike him. I haven't had a chance to speak with him. He is not talking to anyone I know."
Cristina Silva can be reached at http://twitter.com/cristymsilva.