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Democrats court Latinos to keep control of Senate

By Cristina Silva

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 19 2011 3:52 p.m. MST

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."

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Cristina Silva can be reached at http://twitter.com/cristymsilva.

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