Latinos in Washington state were instrumental in this year's election.

Latinos in Washington state were instrumental in this year’s election. (Flickr/Efx )

In Washington, the Latino vote rises in importance

SEATTLE (AP) — If pollster Matt Barreto is right, then Latino voters in Washington were one of the key factors in Gov.-elect Jay Inslee’s win over Republican candidate Rob McKenna.

Barreto estimates that about 140,000 Latinos voted in these past elections. While there were no wide ranging exit polls conducted here, by pooling polls Barreto roughly projects that Latinos in Washington broke similarly — about 3 to 1 — for the Democrat Inslee as they did for President Barack Obama.

That would be about 105,000 votes. Inslee beat McKenna by more than 90,000 votes at last count.

Asian-American voters, which at 7 percent of the voting pool have a bigger share than Latinos, are also thought to have broken for Inslee similarly in this state.

“Without these two growing minority electorates, Inslee would not have been able to win,” said Barreto, a University of Washington professor and director of polling outfit Latino Decisions.

But with historically lower turnout numbers, Barreto thinks the full potential of Latinos has not been fully tapped. He estimates that there are another 140,000 eligible Latino voters in Washington state that aren’t registered.

RELATED: Why some polls got the Latino vote wrong

“People in Washington state have not come to terms with the potential and growth of Latino electorate,” Barreto said. The parties “still don’t feel Latinos are voters.”

The 2012 elections brought renewed attention to minority voting blocs after exit polls showed that Obama claimed the lion’s share of votes from Latinos and Asians, giving him a key edge over Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who won a majority but shrinking white vote.

Nationally, Obama nabbed more than 70 percent of the votes among Latinos and Asians. Just a few years ago, those two voting blocs were up for grabs. President George W. Bush took 40 percent of the Latino votes, compared to Romney’s 23 percent.

The sound defeat has forced many Republican thinkers to call for changes to the way the party has spoken about issues, specifically immigration, that those groups care about.

Locally, however, it’s harder to ascertain how minority voters affected statewide elections.

But Barreto thinks similar forces played out in this state and this election serves as a reminder of what’s shaping Washington politics: Minorities could redraw the state’s political landscape.

If minority groups continue voting in masse with Democrats, it could push Washington to become a solid blue state from the Legislature up. Current Republican strongholds like central Washington, for example, could turn to swing districts and swing districts in Western Washington could become bluer.

In total population, Latinos now make up 11 percent of Washington’s 6.7 million residents and are the fastest growing minority group, while Asians clock in at 7 percent, according to state figures.

“Just like the rest of the country, there’s no doubt that the electorate is becoming less white,” said Republican consultant Chris Vance.

RELATED: Young Latino vote crucial to Obama’s re-election

Vance didn’t mince words about what the state GOP needs to do to attract minority voters here.

“Becoming sane about immigration,” he said. “You can’t talk to Latino voters with the insane notion that you’re going to round up 11 million people and deport them.”

Republicans had fielded one of their strongest gubernatorial candidates in McKenna for a generation. He had branded himself as a moderate and had been well liked — and reelected twice — as attorney general.

McKenna made it a point to campaign hard among minority groups, dancing “Gangnam Style” at a Washington State Korean Association forum and speaking a full introduction in Spanish at a Yakima debate.

But he also focused on issues affecting those groups. He spoke of his work to crack down on fraud among the so-called “notarios” who pose as immigration agents in the Latino community. He ran radio ads in Spanish and recruited Latino and Asian field organizers.

But Barreto and Vance both said McKenna couldn’t shake the national Republican image that the party is anti-immigrants.

For the Latino vote, Barreto also thinks McKenna’s stance on driver’s licenses and his participation in the lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act also may have cost him votes, he said.

“Latinos are more likely to be working class to support health care reform,” Barreto said.

Randy Pepple, McKenna’s campaign manager, thinks it’s too early to assess which way people voted. He’s waiting to see precinct data to see details and see where the campaign had missteps and questioned whether a turnout of more than 80 percent among registered Latino voters is a safe assumption.

Pepple said there’s not one group of voters that McKenna’s campaign didn’t work toward getting.

“You’ve got to compete in all groups,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake to write off any segment of the population.”

Democrats aren’t doing too well among Latinos, either, Barreto surmised. Inslee may have been helped more by Obama’s coattails than his direct campaigning.

He points to the 15th legislative district — the state’s first Latino majority district. The democratic candidate this year, a college student, was soundly defeated.

“If the Democrats would put some serious effort on voter registration, they could easily get a Democratic victory in that seat,” he said.

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