The Supreme Court will soon issue its decision on whether to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Latino impact on Senate races shows Hispanics’ increasing clout

So by now we all know the presidential race is tight.  Today’s NBC News/WSJ poll has the race at 48 percent for Barack Obama, 47 percent for Mitt Romney.  With this margin, political analysts and Democrats as well as Republicans are closely scrutinizing the Latino vote, especially in battleground states such as Florida.  But the growing Latino electorate is also having an impact on races across the country,  especially in the Senate.

In Arizona, Richard Carmona, a Puerto Rican who was former U.S. Surgeon General, is running against Republican Jeff Flake, who has ample support in predominantly Republican Maricopa County.  Rodolfo Espino, an associate professor of political science at Arizona State University, says he has seen markedly increased political mobilization among Arizona’s Latinos, in part due to a much more organized effort by local and national Latino organizations. “I have seen Latino activists in Spanish and English media, for example, react immediately to the Maricopa County ballots which had the wrong date for the elections in Spanish,” says Espino.  Hispanic groups, he says, have been instrumental in registering new Latino voters in both languages, assisting with ballot issues, and having more organizational infrastructure than four years ago.

RELATED: Carmona responds to harsh TV ads as Flake “goes nuclear”

“I expect we will see record Latino turnout in Arizona, due to better organization and better voter education than 2008,” says Espino.

Arizona’s Latino voters are predominantly Democratic, yet Espino says Maricopa County is 60 percent Republican, and Republican Jeff Flake as well as controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio have a chance to win the election. Yet Espino says he has already seen how Arpaio, who has been accused by the federal government of civil rights violations surrounding his harsh policies against undocumented immigrants, has ‘softened’ his stance in campaign ads, not mentioning immigration and border issues at all but keeping it “more soft and fuzzy,” according to Espino.  “I think Republicans realize you can’t do that anymore, look at the recall of Russell Pierce,” says Espino.

“What will be interesting to see, regardless of who wins the election in Arizona, is the trend line of the Latino vote,” Espino adds.  “If the Latino vote increases substantially in this election, then the trend line could make Arizona like Nevada or Colorado in the next couple of elections,” Espino says.

Nevada’s Latinos have definitely received a lot of attention in this election.  In 2010, Latinos were instrumental in Democratic Senator Harry Reid’s hard-fought re-election battle against Republican Sharron Angle.  Hispanics are almost a third of the state’s population, and both the Obama and the Romney campaigns have assiduously courted Hispanics.  Republicans have been appealing to Hispanics by stressing Nevada still has high unemployment and foreclosures.  But University of Nevada political scientist David Damore stated recently that nearly four of five registered Latino voters favor Obama over Romney, and about 57 percent of Latinos were favoring Democratic Senate candidate Shelley Berkley, which might very well give her an edge over Republican candidate Dean Heller.

RELATED: Obama, Romney visit Colorado and Nevada – crucial Latino battleground states

In the Virginia Senate race, Democrat Tim Kaine has a small lead over Republican George Allen – but the lead is a couple of points.  “Latinos are a growing population in Virginia, particularly in urban areas, and if turnout is high, that can have an impact on the race, especially for Kaine ” says Stella Rouse, assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.  Latinos are currently almost 4 percent of the eligible voters in the state.

In New Mexico, Senate Democratic candidate Martin Heinrich has the lead over Republican Senate candidate Heather Wilson.  Wilson, however, has good name recognition and is popular, and according to University of New Mexico political scientist Gabriel Sanchez, has been more vague on immigration and the Dream Act and has not taken a harsh stance on the topic.  Sanchez estimates Wilson needs to win between 35 to 40 percent of the Latino vote to win, however, whereas the numbers might end up in the low to mid thirties, an example of where Latino numbers make a crucial difference.

Latino votes in the very close Senate races in Massachusetts and Connecticut, might also tip the balance, especially for the Democratic candidates in these two states. In these tight Senate races as well as in the presidential race, says University of New Mexico’s Gabriel Sanchez, the margin of difference between the candidates may be smaller than Latino voter numbers, making the Hispanic vote a crucial voting block for many of these candidates.

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