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World Magazine

Polyglot Politics

by Bob Jones in Santa Fe, New Mexico

September 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 World Magazine. All rights reserved. 

Volume 17 Number 37

The GOP's Latino outreach: With three-quarters of a million Hispanic Americans reaching voting age every year for the next decade, Republicans not only are beginning to understand the political math but also are learning to speak the political language. Saying "pro-life" in Spanish might be a good idea |

Zozobra is dead. Growling and groaning, he was hoisted high on a pole two nights ago and set on fire. No one was sorry to see him go, of course. The 44-foot-tall puppet is nicknamed "Old Man Gloom" because he represents the mistakes and disappointments of the year. Thousands of New Mexicans party around his funeral pyre each year, kicking off the three-day celebration known as Fiesta.

Forty-eight hours after the blaze, the residents of Santa Fe are still partying. Marching bands and mounted regiments are gathered in the parking lot of the DeVargas Mall, waiting for the 2 p.m. kickoff of the annual Fiesta parade. It's a weird cross-section of Santa Fe, past and present: Church groups, New Age healers, and gay activists line up side-by-side with costumed Spanish conquistadors and Pueblo Indians.

And then, of course, there are the politicians. Office-seekers at every level have turned out on this cloudless September afternoon to shake a few hands and change a few minds. At one end of the mall parking lot, in front of the Wells Fargo bank building, John Sanchez has set up an impromptu barbecue for his supporters. The 39-year-old gubernatorial hopeful works his admiring crowd, offering thanks, hugs, and "Dream Big" T-shirts.

Democratic leaders in New Mexico dismiss the Sanchez effort as little more than a pipe dream. His opponent, after all, is Bill Richardson, who served eight terms in Congress and was formerly a UN ambassador and secretary of energy. Mr. Richardson seems to be everything Mr. Sanchez is not: well-established, well-connected, and well ahead in the polls.

But the two men do share one characteristic: They're both Hispanic, a fact that has earned intense national scrutiny for their race. Two Hispanic candidates going mano a mano is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics, and Republicans, especially, have a lot riding on the outcome. With Hispanics poised to surpass blacks as the largest ethnic minority in America, the GOP wants desperately to increase its appeal among an up-and-coming voting bloc. In John Sanchez, the party has found an attractive, articulate spokesman who just might have what it takes not only to defeat Bill Richardson but also to serve as a model for future GOP candidates.

As Mr. Sanchez wades into the raucous Fiesta crowds searching for hands to shake, he bears both the hopes of his party and the burden of history. The Fiesta, after all, commemorates the Spanish resettlement of Santa Fe following an Indian uprising that had briefly chased the conquistadors back to Mexico. Now, the heirs of the conquistadors are poised to take power from the state's white political elites. Republicans can only hope that this new revolution is not only ethnic but ideological as well.

In some ways, John Sanchez is an unlikely standard-bearer in this important political battle. He was reared in poverty by a single mother, the youngest of eight children who shared a two-bedroom house with no indoor plumbing. "I literally went from the outhouse to the statehouse," is how he likes to synopsize his life story.

By all rights, he should have been a Democrat. Impoverished families like his, dependent on the largesse of the state government, have long been the backbone of the New Mexico Democratic Party. But the Sanchez family was different: John's great-great-grandfather was a Republican territorial legislator, and his grandfather was the last GOP lawmaker of Hispanic descent to be elected from a northern New Mexico county.

Although the family fortunes had declined precipitously, its political philosophy somehow remained intact. "Nobody owes you anything in this world," Mrs. Sanchez used to tell her children. "Stay in school. Work hard. Dream big."

Forty years later, that's the core message of Mr. Sanchez's gubernatorial campaign. It flies in the face of the New Deal mentality that continues to dominate in many Hispanic neighborhoods throughout the state, but Mr. Sanchez thinks the time is right for realignment. "One definition of insanity," he says, "is doing the same thing over and over again with the same unsuccessful result." After decades near the bottom of the national rankings for education and poverty, he hopes New Mexicans are ready to admit that high taxes, minute regulation, and extensive welfare are nothing short of insane.

When he first burst onto the state's political scene two years ago, critics thought he was the one who was insane. In his first bid for public office, he challenged the speaker of New Mexico's House of Representatives, a 30-year incumbent in a county where Democrats outnumbered Republicans roughly 2 to 1. In one of the biggest upsets in the state's political history, Mr. Sanchez won that race despite–or perhaps because of–his unflinchingly conservative views. "We didn't change our message at all" in winning over longtime Democratic voters, he insists. "Perhaps I was just the right messenger at the time."

He's hardly the only Hispanic messenger for the GOP in this crucial election year. After largely ignoring–or actively alienating–Hispanic voters in years past, the Republican Party is at last getting serious about the surging number of Spanish-speaking voters at the polls. Democrats like to brag that they have 16 of the 19 Hispanics currently serving in Congress, but Republicans this year have their own numbers to brag about.

"We have reached parity with the Democrats in regard to the number of non-incumbent candidates of Hispanic descent that we have running for Congress," says Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (see sidebar). With control of the House coming down to just a handful of races, both parties will have 16 Hispanic candidates running for Congress in November. In past years, outside of south Florida's Cuban community, the GOP might have had two or three Hispanic nominees at best.

The new focus on Hispanic voters is being driven largely from the top down. George W. Bush made perhaps the most concerted bid ever for Hispanic voters by a GOP presidential nominee, and he's kept that emphasis since moving into the Oval Office.

Robert de Posada, president of the Latino Coalition, a right-leaning think tank in Washington, notes that President Bush has already named more Hispanic appointees than any other president in history–8 percent of his total appointments, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. Highest-ranking among those is Mel Martinez, the Cuban-born secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Other standouts include Antonio Garza, only the third Mexican-American ever named ambassador to Mexico, Small Business Administration Administrator Hector Barreto, United States Treasurer Rosario Marin, and Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez. And then, of course, there's Miguel Estrada, the first Hispanic nominated for the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, frequently a stepping-stone to the Supreme Court. Senate Democrats have bottled up the Estrada nomination for nearly a year and a half.

Beyond his appointive power, Mr. de Posada says the president has used the bully pulpit to stage a series of "very aggressive symbolic gestures," from celebrating the Cinco de Mayo holiday in the White House to carefully including Hispanic leaders in his Washington briefings.

The Democrats are keeping a watchful eye on the Bush efforts. At this summer's meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Las Vegas, Chairman Terry McAuliffe pooh-poohed the GOP approach: "The president invites mariachi bands down to the White House and that's supposed to be some kind of outreach effort," he told delegates munching on Mexican food. "I think the Republican outreach is a joke."

Democrats aren't laughing at the polls, however. Despite his best efforts, candidate Bush took only 35 percent of the Hispanic vote versus Al Gore in 2000. But in a study released last month by the Latino Coalition, Hispanics favored Mr. Bush over Mr. Gore in a hypothetical rematch, 50 percent to 35 percent. In that same time period, the president's general approval rating among Hispanics has doubled from 38 percent to 76 percent.

Even more exciting to GOP strategists: Mr. Bush actually appears to have coattails among Hispanic voters. A poll in late May showed that nationwide, 45 percent of Hispanics said they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate endorsed by the president. And in key states like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, that number topped 60 percent. Thanks largely to a popular president, incumbent Republicans have seen their approval ratings rise, as well. In last year's Latino Coalition poll, Hispanics preferred congressional Democrats over Republicans by a 34-point margin. By this August, the GOP had narrowed that margin to just 12 points.

"Clearly, Latinos now see the Republican Party as the party of President George W. Bush," Mr. de Posada concludes from the polling data, "and this is a significant boost for Republicans across the board."

It's a boost the GOP is going to need if it hopes to maintain control of the White House and Congress in coming years. Just as Ronald Reagan converted many conservative Democrats to the Republican Party, George W. Bush has the chance to effect a long-term realignment among Hispanic voters. Indeed, his contribution could be even more critical than Mr. Reagan's: Whereas the potential number of "Reagan Democrats" was always limited, the pool of Hispanic voters will only deepen as time goes on. Demographers project that some 750,000 Hispanics will come of voting age every year for the next decade. Add in a steady stream of naturalized immigrants, and it's easy to see why the very future of the GOP may hinge on the success of candidates like Mr. Sanchez.

What those candidates have going for them is that many aspects of the Republican philosophy are innately attractive to Hispanic voters. Asked to choose among the ideological labels "liberal," "moderate," and "conservative," 35 percent of Hispanics opt for the latter (compared to 28 percent each for "moderate" and "liberal"). Yet despite their instinctive conservatism, when asked to choose a party label, Hispanics opt for "Democrat" by a 2-to-1 margin over "Republican."

Why the disconnect? Mr. de Posada believes it's nothing more than a matter of communication. "While [Hispanics] consider themselves conservative, the Republican Party in the past hasn't been sending signals that they're welcome in the fold."

Mr. Diaz at the NRCC admits that's probably true. "I think we have a message with natural appeal to Hispanic voters, and we're now communicating that message more effectively, district by district. We're going to make sure they know the ideas we represent.... Unlike the Democrats, we don't change our message, we just try to deliver it more effectively."

Among the GOP issues he believes will resonate with Hispanics: "Education and economic success. The president's 'no child left behind' education policy means that finally Hispanic children have reached parity in the classroom. It took a Republican coming into office to make sure that Hispanic children in urban schools did not get left behind. On taxes, the Bush tax cut put money back into the pockets of 15 million Hispanics–about half the total Hispanic population."

Democrats, of course, have education and tax-cut proposals of their own, so Republicans will have to battle for the high ground on those issues. Indeed, the one issue that draws the brightest line between the parties is the one that neither likes to discuss: abortion.

"The Democrats sure aren't on the right side of that issue," says Mr. Diaz, noting that seven out of 10 Hispanics are pro-life. And abortion isn't the only social issue that could drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and Hispanic voters. "Faith-based initiatives, vouchers, school choice–all have strong backing among Hispanics," according to Mr. Diaz.

Back in New Mexico, Republicans are going to need those wedge issues to help split conservative Democrats from the party they support largely out of habit. Barbara Blackwell, the Santa Fe GOP chair, says Hispanic voters, when approached with Republican campaign literature, will often protest immediately that they are Democrats. "Do you agree with the Democratic position on abortion?" Republican workers often ask.

"The Democratic Party doesn't really represent their values," Ms. Blackwell says, explaining the strategy. "Core values have become more important since 9/11, [and] a lot of Hispanics are naturally conservative. We just need to get them to remember that–like Israel in the Old Testament had to be reminded what they once believed and stood for."

That kind of message, delivered by the right candidate, just might be enough to peel many Hispanic voters away from Mr. Richardson. Although Mr. Sanchez trails in the polls, he's narrowed the gap dramatically since winning an ugly primary battle three months ago. An internal poll from early September shows him 10 points behind Mr. Richardson–a 22-point gain since May. Mr. Richardson, meanwhile, despite his long history in state politics and name recognition near 100 percent, has dropped below 50 percent support for the first time.

Losing to a relative newcomer would be a huge blow for Mr. Richardson, who reportedly made Al Gore's short list for vice president in 2000. On the other hand, a come-from-behind win for Mr. Sanchez would instantly propel him onto the national stage as the GOP's highest-ranking elected official of Hispanic descent. Could a VP nod of his own be far behind?

Like any good politician, Mr. Sanchez pretends the thought has never occurred to him. "I'm a good Republican, but I consider myself a better New Mexican," he demurs. "My focus is here."

Maybe. But is it just a coincidence that the last four digits of his campaign phone number are 2008.

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