Washington — Latino voters in Connecticut are poised to flex the kind of political muscle that could decide elections. But there is no certainty which political party, or politicians, could stand to benefit more.
With tight races for the U.S. Senate and an open House seat, and the probability that the first Latino will be elected to the state Senate, “there’s no question Latino voters will be a factor,” said Matt Barreto, founder of the national polling firm Latino Decisions and a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“People are just beginning to realize the significance of (Connecticut’s) Latino electorate,” Barreto said.
Earlier this month, Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill reported there are more than 176,000 registered voters of Hispanic origin in Connecticut, nearly 9 percent of all registered voters in the state. Those numbers could be much higher because voters were identified by Spanish surnames and not all Hispanics have Spanish surnames.
The reaction of the state’s political class to that growing voting bloc is as diverse as the state’s Latino community, composed of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and in growing numbers, Central and South Americans.
Diane Alverio, publisher of ctlatinonews.com, said some Connecticut political candidates are better at Latino outreach than others.
“Many are still having rallies in Latino neighborhoods, going to festivals and visiting the local stores,” Alverio said. “They think that’s how they are going to reach all Latinos and that’s not true anymore.”
As Hispanics gain political clout, they also gain political sophistication.
“You can’t reach out like you reached out to our parents,” Alverio said.
Barreto recommends filming Hispanics in ads run in English-language media to reach English-dominant Latinos and the use of messages important to Latinos — jobs, health care and education.
Rep. Jim Himes, R-4th District, who represents a large Puerto Rican community in Bridgeport and emerging communities of South American immigrants in Stamford and Norwalk, is proud of his strategy.
“I happen to have a lot of simpatico with Latino voters,” he said. “I can speak to Latinos in their language.”
Born in Lima, Peru, of American parents, Himes is fluently bilingual.
He uses that skill to reach out in Spanish language radio, while other politicians need to use interpreters to get their message across.
Himes said when he goes to events Latinos come up to him and say, “Hey, you’re Jim Himes, the guy from Peru.”
“Word gets around,” said Himes, who is being challenged by Republican Steve Obsitnik.
Himes also has the support of Hispanic leaders like state Rep. Andres Ayala of Bridgeport, who is expected to be the first Hispanic senator in Connecticut’s legislature after November’s elections.
Ayala said he campaigns for Himes, Senate candidate Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District and President Obama when he stumps in Latino crowds.
He advocates the use of Latino surrogates to reach Hispanic voters and says candidates should have more of them.
“We are from the community and when we talk to (Hispanic voters) we say, ‘Vote for this guy,'” Ayala said. “They listen.”
DREAM Act a ‘mobilizing issue’
Democrats have an advantage with Connecticut’s Latinos, but there are many unaffiliated Hispanic voters in the state who could vote Republican.
Polls show that many Latinos are small business owners who are increasingly lured by the GOP’s anti-tax, pro-business stance.
In any case, Latino votes could make the difference in close elections, like the Senate race between Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon and the 4th District House race between Republican Andrew Roraback and Democrat Elizabeth Esty.
According to the Secretary of the State’s office, 90,012 registered Latinos are enrolled as Democrats, 71,488 are registered as unaffiliated voters, and 14,449 are enrolled Republicans.
Like Himes, Roraback addresses Latinos in Spanish, which he learned in high school, and records his own Spanish-language radio ads.
But he has taken at least one political position that could hinder his outreach: As a state senator in the most recent session of the state legislature, Roraback voted against a bill that was modeled after the federal DREAM Act that eases the way for undocumented immigrant children to attend college.
“If we’re going to give a spot at the University of Connecticut to someone who brought their children here in violation of our rule of law, that spot will be a spot not available to a law-abiding, tax-paying, Connecticut family that has played by the rules,” Roraback said in a recent debate with rival Esty, who supports the legislation.
Barreto, of Latino Decisions, called the DREAM Act “a very mobilizing issue” among Latino voters, and said opposition to it will hurt many Republican candidates, including presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
McMahon has not said what her stance is on the legislation, and her campaign did not return calls for this story.
But McMahon’s campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants and Spanish-language ads to reach Latino voters. She has also held events in Latino households.
To help Murphy, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is running a Spanish-language radio ad attacking McMahon.
Turnout is key
How much efforts to win Latino votes will pay off will depend, at least in part, on turnout, which is notoriously low among Hispanics. About half of registered Latino voters in Connecticut don’t show up at the polls.
Having Obama on the ticket may help boost turnout. The president’s popularity among Hispanics rose after he announced last summer he’d temporarily stop deportations of undocumented youths to give Congress time to approve the DREAM Act, Barreto said.
But the pollster said one thing is for sure. The numbers, and percentage, of Latino voters are expected to keep growing in the state.
“Connecticut is going to have a very fast-rising Hispanic community,” Barreto said. “If they are 9 percent of the electorate this year, they could be 15 or 16 percent in 2016.”