Hispanics played key role in election

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By Jeri Clausing
The Associated Press

After years of flip-flopping between parties, New Mexico voters lined up solidly for a second time behind the Democratic Party in this week’s elections, a trend one analyst attributed to the state’s already large and fast-growing Hispanic population.

“I think the underlying demographics really point to a major shift toward the Democratic Party,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico. “Unless the Republican Party both nationally and within the state is able to attract more Hispanics and Indian voters, I don’t see that changing.”

Exit polls taken for The Associated Press and television networks show the state’s Hispanic voters backed President Barack Obama more than 2-to-1, while the majority of white voters supported Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In the U.S. Senate race, Hispanics lined up in similar numbers behind Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich, who defeated Republican Heather Wilson for the seat that opened up with the retirement of Democrat Jeff Bingaman.

Another observer attributed the solid Democratic leaning in New Mexico on the Republican Party’s failure to show up this year.

“It’s cyclical,” said Maurilio Vigil, professor emeritus at Highlands University in the northern New Mexico town of Las Vegas. “In New Mexico, Romney didn’t do anything” to try counter the strong Hispanic support for Obama.

With virtually no campaign here, Romney failed to work the Albuquerque metro area, which Vigil said is the swing region between solidly Democratic northern New Mexico and the GOP-leaning “little Texas” region of southern New Mexico.

Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham easily defeated Republican state Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones to keep Democratic control of Albuquerque’s congressional seat, which until Heinrich won it 2008 was held by Republicans for 40 years.

Rep. Steve Pearce, who represents the more conservative southern New Mexico, remains the lone GOP member of the state’s congressional delegation.

At 46 percent, New Mexico is the most Hispanic state in the country.

Thirty-eight percent of eligible voters are Hispanic, up 6 percent from 2000, Sanchez said.

New Mexico was considered solidly Democrat during the Clinton years and supported Al Gore by just 366 votes over George W. Bush in 2000. But the state went Republican for Bush in 2004 — when more than two in five Hispanics backed him — then followed the Democratic tide that elected Obama in 2008.

Because New Mexico elected Republican Gov. Susana Martinez two years later, pundits going into this year’s presidential elections expected a tight race. Vigil noted that Martinez was able to win because a strong GOP Hispanic who speaks Spanish and knows how to work traditional Democrat strongholds can sway traditionally Hispanics away from an anglo Democrat and “dilute” the overall impact of the Hispanic voting bloc.

Still, Sanchez said he believes New Mexico Hispanics are increasingly turning to the Democratic Party, even though they have traditionally been more conservative than Latinos nationally.

That trend is growing throughout the U.S., he said, in large part because of the GOP’s strong opposition to immigration reform policies that offer some illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. Although voters in New Mexico and across the country cited the economy as their top concern, exit polls show New Mexico Hispanics overwhelmingly favored offering illegal immigrants a chance to apply for legal status.

That survey of 2,514 New Mexico voters was conducted by Edison Research. Results for the full sample were subject to a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.

Vigil said that even though many northern New Mexicans, like himself, are descendants of Spanish settlers, they sympathize with the Mexican immigrants and “policies that are directed at them,” policies that he says are discriminatory.