NJ Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, at right, is seen here with NJ Senator Frank Lautenberg, (Photo/Getty Images )

Opinion: Democrats can’t afford to lose their only Latino Senator

The Democrats have a diversity problem. As President Obama struggles to find seasoned Latino leaders to integrate into his cabinet with the Los Angeles Mayor taking his name out of consideration, the Democrats will need to rededicate their efforts at making sure the next time their president looks to fill important senior roles there will be a lineup of veterans waiting to lead.

Senator Menendez of New Jersey has recently fallen under suspicion for questionable activities with donors and has been accused of soliciting underage prostitutes while taking trips to the Dominican Republic.  He denies this ever happened but he has also come under scrutiny for writing  a check for fifty-eight thousand dollars to reimburse a donor for two trips to the Dominican Republic.

While folks like Hilda SolisCecilia Muñoz, and Thomas Perez have potential to take on greater roles, losing a commodity like Senator Menendez would be a blow to the future needs of the Democratic Party and of Latinos.

But rather than supporting his colleague, Senator Frank Lautenberg seemed to throw Senator Menendez under the bus. New Jersey politics is a notoriously tough, and this could be sour grapes because Mr. Menendez has not outright supported Mr. Lautenberg against a potential challenge by popular Mayor Cory Booker. But the Democrats can ill afford to lose their only Latino representative in the Senate for reasons that are less than outright indefensible.

The problem facing the Democrats is that the vast majority of their Latino representatives are elected in districts that are composed of a majority of Latinos, or majority-minority districts. For instance, Representative Raul Grijalva is in Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District, which is composed of 56 percent Latinos and 32 percent whites. Meanwhile, folks like Republican Raul Labrador represent a district that is only 10 percent Latino.

This gives Republicans an advantage in promoting their short list of Latino representatives up the electoral ladder, and indeed, Mr. Labrador is being talked about for higher office. By contrast, the rising Latino stars in the Democratic Party, such as the Castro brothers of Texas, have an easy enough time getting elected in heavily Latino geographies, but their rise up the ladder as Latinos will not easily transfer to the state level in a place like Texas.

Instead, it was Latino Senator Ted Cruz who was able to elbow his way into office against established Republican politico David Dewhurst by appealing to anti-establishment white voters. This is the kind of bridge-building that Republicans should cultivate, and as more Republican Latinos are elected into office, they will be able to serve as trusted ambassadors for compromise on difficult issues like immigration reform.

This is why folks like Senator Menendez hold strategic importance for the Democrats. Coming from a state like New Jersey where his congressional delegation is split evenly among Democrats and Republicans, and where his Governor is a Republican, this “moderate Democrat” is unusually experienced with bridging competing interests in ways other Latino Democrats have problems with.

It was Florida Senator Marco Rubio who was able to go on the Rush Limbaugh show and calm the nerves of his listeners on the issue of legalization for the undocumented. Mr. Rubio has also gone on other conservative talk-radio shows, such as Hugh Hewitt, to explain what immigration reform might look like. This is one way to make progress, and while politicians like Mr. Rubio and Mr. Labrador are shunned by many Latinos as vendidos, or traitors, for being Republicans and for representing the interests of their white constituencies, this is the very beginning of a longer road for the GOP as it adjusts to the growing diversity of the country.

Earlier this week, the Republican Party announced a Latino recruitment effort that will be led by the only two Latino Governors in the country who also happen to be Republicans; Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico. This high level attention is a commodity growing in value for both parties, and the Democrats should pay special attention to making sure they don’t lose ground as the Republicans work towards turning their Latino outreach problem into a manageable level.


Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D., NBC Latino contributor and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. He is currently writing a book on Republican outreach into the Latino Community.

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