Election officials are still counting ballots in Arizona after last week’s election. (Photo by Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images)

Opinion: Arizona, Democrats’ stepchild?

In an increasingly purple West, Arizona sticks out like a sore red thumb. Across the region, the rapid growth of Hispanics and independent voters has opened once conservative states up for Democratic victories. Arizona should be no exception to the rule: 29.6 percent of Arizona’s residents are Latino.

This population has grown by 46 percent over the past decade, helping the state gain an extra congressional seat and contributing over $33 billion in purchasing power. In the face of S.B. 1070, Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s shenanigans and an assault on ethnic studies, it’s hard to believe that Arizona’s Latinos haven’t made Republicans answers for their antics.

Unfortunately,chronic underinvestment limits the electoral impact of the state’s Latino population. Democrats have already suggested that they are keeping their eye on Arizona. In the run-up to today’s primaries, myriad surrogates have pounded the Romney anti-immigrant drumbeat. But if Democrats want to win Arizona they will need to do more than make the case against Republicans. They will need to move a significant number of the state’s Latinos from “eligible” voters to “registered” voters, and they will need to build the infrastructure and spend the money to make it happen.

The ground is ripe for a Democratic victory. Between Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature and governor passing S.B. 1070, the state’s “papers, please” legislation, and the banning of K-12 ethnic studies, Arizona’s Latinos are energized. Arizona Latino voters overwhelmingly oppose S.B. 1070, 81 percent to 16 percent, and a majority of those voters cite immigration as their top concern. Prior to S.B. 1070, Arizona’s Latino voters only slightly favored Democrats. In 2004, John Kerry won the state’s Latino vote by nine points, and in 2008, Barack Obama won the vote by 15 points. After S.B. 1070, Arizona Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry Goddard and Arizona Senate candidate Rodney Glassman won the state’s Latino vote by unbelievable margins. In-state hostility matched with a barrage of national media attention increased the partisan split.

The problem for Democrats is that vote preference and support levels mean little when they’re not buttressed by high turnout.  Goddard and Glassman each carried over 75% of the Latino vote, and both still lost. As of 2010, there were 766,000 eligible Hispanic voters in Arizona, 18 percent of the state’s eligible voters. Many of them — estimates project over 400,000 — need to be registered. That’s the very investment that Democrats need to make.

What’s more, the benefits of investing in Arizona extend beyond 2012. One-third of Hispanic eligible voters in Arizona (32%) are ages 18 to 29 and 61.8 percent of the state’s eligible Hispanic voters are under 44.  Young Latinos are often short-changed by the assumption that they are too difficult to register and too unreliable to warrant the effort. In reality, there is no special salsa. Traditional peer-to-peer contact is a sure-fire way to register young Latinos, and canvassing is a proven way to get them out. Besides, the benefits could be game changing. Research shows that when people vote in three consecutive elections, they become lifelong voters, and when they vote for the same party consecutively in those elections, they disproportionately vote for that party for the rest of their lives. An investment in Arizona’s Latinos, particularly young Latinos, beginning this year and continuing for the next six years could be Team Obama’s political legacy.

As Democrats consider the various paths to victory they’ve put forward, an expansion path that brings states like Arizona into play might be riskiest, but it’s a long term strategy that offsets the upfront risk.

 Opinion: Arizona, Democrats stepchild? tumblr lxckzgICyo1r1767o politics NBC Latino News

ALICIA MENENDEZ, NBC Latino contributor and Founder of DailyGrito.com

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