APOPKA, Fla. — The Democratic lieutenant governor candidates from Florida, Texas and Nevada all have colorful biographies: a Colombian-born business executive; a pharmacist-turned-veteran lawmaker; and a juvenile delinquent-turned-lawyer.
And all balk at the umpteenth "How does it feel to be the first Latina?" question.
"I'd like to get to a place where that's no longer of interest," said Annette Taddeo Goldstein, the running mate of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Democrat seeking to recapture his old job. Besides running a successful translation company, Taddeo is a powerful state party activist and a member of the Democratic National Committee's executive committee. And yes, she is also the first Florida Latina to hold the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket.
Her sentiment is echoed by Texas state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and Nevada Assembly Rep. Lucy Flores. All three are the first competitive Latinas to run for the post in their states.
After years of running few Latinos for statewide posts, Democrats are building a bench that better reflects the support they have in the Hispanic community: more than twice as many Hispanics identify as Democrats than Republicans nationally, according to polls. This year they are showcasing this bench in key states that not only have large Hispanic electorates but enough electoral votes to swing presidential elections. The shift is crucial for a party that often fails to get its Hispanic supporters to the polls.
Democrats have long run minority candidates in minority districts, but not in heavily white districts or statewide. Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, says this year looks different. If 2010 was the year of the Republican Latino candidate — Gov. Susana Martinez won in New Mexico, and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in Florida and Texas — 2014 may well be the year Democrats begin to catch up, she said.
"The gubernatorial candidates are seeing Latinas as someone who will help their ticket," she said, "but it also shows the continuing evolution of Latinos in politics."
Gold said the change is as much about quality as quantity, with more viable Latina non-incumbents running in both parties, and even from states with emerging Hispanic communities. For example, a Latina Democrat is running for Rhode Island's secretary of state. On the Republican side, Evelyn Sanguienetti, the daughter of Ecuadoran and Cuban immigrants, is the lieutenant governor candidate in Illinois.
Yet the ascension of candidates like Taddeo, Van de Putte and Flores is also a reminder of just how far Democrats have to go.
Crist chose Taddeo after Republican Gov. Rick Scott appointed former state lawmaker Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Cuban-American, to be Florida's first Latino lieutenant governor earlier this year.
The Crist campaign recently inaugurated its first office in the farm town of Apopka, one of many central Florida communities where Latinos are increasingly making their home and an area Democrats previously overlooked. At the opening, Taddeo discussed school testing with fellow parents, insurance premiums with small business owners and health care access with young volunteers. She later switched to flawless Spanish for the local Telemundo reporters.
Yet almost none of the local campaign volunteers or staff was Latino. When Taddeo visited a campaign office in Broward County, a region with twice as many eligible Hispanic voters as the entire state of Virginia, monolingual staffers passed her the Spanish-language get-out-the-vote calls.
But nowhere is low Hispanic turnout and participation more significant than Texas, where Hispanics make up nearly 40 percent of the population. Nearly half the state's registered voters are Democrats, but only about 25 percent of eligible Latinos cast their ballot in the last non-presidential election. The Supreme Court's decision last week to uphold a strict voter ID law won't help with turnout, either.
Pharmacist and veteran lawmaker Van De Putte said Democrats have done little outreach with Latinos in the past, but they are stepping up this year, thanks in part to candidates like her.
She said her win would be historic, but quickly added, "it's also about someone who served in the Legislature for 20 years."
Drawn in part by the increase in candidates, as well as Democrats' need for Hispanic votes, nonprofit organizations are stepping up outreach. The National Council of La Raza has increased non-partisan registration in Texas this year, expanded phone banking and launched a pilot program to encourage voters to register by mail. The group is also working in Florida to groom new Latina leaders and drive registration. So, too, is the Democratic group Emily's List. And immigrant rights groups have knocked on some 25,000 doors in Florida.
But Republicans are also stepping up, increasing data collection on Hispanic voters in Florida and elsewhere and offering paid internships. The Scott campaign and supportive outside groups have run at least seven TV commercials in Spanish, compared with two from the Crist campaign.
Nevada's Flores, an attorney who turned her life around after a stint in juvenile detention for stealing a car, stresses that engaging Hispanic voters is about more than name and ethnicity. After all, she was elected the same year as Gov. Brian Sandoval, and he won the top Nevada post despite losing the Latino vote.
Flores, who has been outspent 4-1, is reluctant to again answer "that question." But she acknowledges her campaign is about something more than one race.
"If women see myself and Annette and Leticia doing it, they may think about it," she said. "If we're successful, and even if we're not, we'll have an impact on the national conversation."
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