Washington -- The election of Art Linares to the state Senate was one of the biggest surprises of the political season.
The 24-year-old Republican of Cuban-American descent had never held office before, but he won a Westbrook-based seat in a three-way race with a Democrat and a Green Party candidate.
“It was a surprise to some people, but not to me,” Linares said. “I decided to fly low and fly fast. If you have a good idea, and you work hard, you can achieve anything.”
Linares has achieved a number of "firsts." He’s the first Latino Republican to serve in the state's General Assembly and the first Cuban American in a state government where Hispanic officials are overwhelmingly of Puerto Rican descent. He and Democratic Senator-elect Andres Ayala Jr. from Bridgeport are also the first two Latinos elected to the state Senate.
Hispanic votes helped President Obama win re-election this year, and Latino political power increased in many states, including Connecticut, which not only elected the first Latinos to the state Senate, but also voted in two more Latino lawmakers to the state House.
But in Connecticut, the full impact of an increasing Latino electorate is difficult to gauge from the results of the Nov. 6 elections -- although there are a number of signs that the Hispanic community is flexing its political muscle.
There was no exit polling, and information on historical data from voter registrars that could indicate how Connecticut’s Hispanic community voted won’t be available for months.
“We have no way of seeing how many Hispanic voters cast ballots this year,” said Av Harris, spokesman for Denise Merrill, secretary of the state.
But to many Latino activists, the election of Linares and Ayala and other factors have ushered in a new era in which Latinos are becoming fully integrated in Connecticut’s political system.
“The election of Art Linares was unexpected but significant,” said Werner Oyanadel, acting executive director of Connecticut’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission. “It reflects the diversity and influence that our population has in politics.”
National Latino power
A Pew Center report released last week said that Hispanics will account for 40 percent of the growth in the eligible electorate in the United States between now and 2030, when 40 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote.
“The population has been growing like crazy,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the Seattle-based polling firm Latino Decision. “And in small states like Connecticut, where it goes from zero to 6 percent to 15 percent of the population very quickly, the impact is dramatic.”
Nationally, 10 percent of the electorate is Hispanic; in Connecticut it’s nearly 9 percent, according to Merrill, but those numbers could be much higher because voters were identified by Spanish surnames and not all Hispanics have Spanish surnames.
Latino voters gave Obama an edge in crucial swing states, including Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Virginia and Florida. Nationally, the president received at least 75 percent of the Latino vote, Barreto said.
Although Barreto did not poll potential voters in Connecticut, he polled in Massachusetts and determined that 85 percent of Latinos in the Bay State supported Obama.
That heightened enthusiasm for Obama among Latinos may have helped other Democrats in Massachusetts, including Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren, Barreto said, and a similar phenomenon may have occurred in Connecticut. “Connecticut is more similar to Massachusetts than, say, Texas,” he noted.
So Latino votes may have helped Democrats in competitive races in Connecticut, including Democratic Rep.-elect Elizabeth Esty, who defeated Republican Andrew Roraback for the 5th District congressional seat, and Sen.-elect Chris Murphy, the Democrat who outpolled Republican Linda McMahon.
Latino votes may also have boosted Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, in his 60 percent to 40 percent victory over Republican Steve Obsitnik.
“We don’t have exit polling for this race so we can’t know for sure, but given the congressman’s strong relationship with the Latino community, we expect that this national trend held true in the (4th District) and helped increase Jim’s margin,” said Himes press secretary Elizabeth Kerr.
Connecticut’s Hispanic voters likely helped elect Ayala, Linares and other newly elected Latino lawmakers in the state, including Hartford-area Democrats Angel Arce and Edwin Vargas and Democrat Victor Cuevas, of Waterbury.
In 2010, the state launched a campaign called "Tu Voto Si Cuenta," or Your Vote Does Count, that resulted in the registration of about 22,000 new Latino voters.
Charles Venator Santiago, a professor of Latino politics at the University of Connecticut, said he and some Latino activists tried to get the state to do another voter registration drive this year “and nobody seemed to be that interested.”
Nevertheless, Venator said the state’s labor unions pushed their Latino members to the polls this year, and he thinks Hispanics went to the polls in large numbers because of other factors.
“Latinos were active in 2008, and everything suggests they were just as active this time around,” he said.
Preliminary results from some of Connecticut’s cities that are home to many Latinos show turnout was slightly lower this year in Waterbury, New Haven, New Britain and Bridgeport than in 2008, when Obama was first elected. But it increased slightly in Danbury, where nearly 79 percent of registered voters went to the polls Nov. 6.
Turnout in all those cities was dramatically higher this year than in 2010, showing the difference the presidential election made.
“It was obvious in Bridgeport they did come out to vote,” Ayala said.
“As I was going from precinct to precinct on Election Day, there were many Latino faces at the polls,” Ayala said. “I don’t know that they were as enthused as they were in 2008, but the numbers were still high.”
Ayala also said, “Anybody who wants to get elected on a statewide level needs to pay attention to the Latino population."
The force of the Hispanic vote across the country, and its strong support for Democratic candidates, has prompted some Republicans to rethink their hard-line position on immigration.
For example, two days after the election House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he may consider a comprehensive immigration bill that could provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Barreto estimated that between 12.5 million and 13 million Hispanics cast votes on Nov. 6.
“If Republicans don’t make inroads into the Latino vote, they will not win national elections,” he said.
Some prominent GOP strategists agree.
Washington lawyer Charlie Spies, co-founder of the pro-Mitt Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future, and former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez say they are forming a new Super PAC called Republicans for Immigration Reform to undercut fellow Republicans who are alienating Hispanics with tough stances on immigration.