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Beyond the gaffes, candidates diverge in wooing Nevada's Hispanic vote

By Felicia Sonmez

There have been gaffes galore in the Nevada political world over the past week or two as candidates for Senate and governor have been -- awkwardly at times -- wooing Hispanic voters. But will these campaign-trail stumbles have an impact in November?

First, let's detail the stumbles.

There was the flap that arose after Republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Sandoval reportedly commented during a Univision interview that his children would not be at risk of being profiled due to Arizona's immigration law because they "don't look Hispanic."

(Sandoval, who is of Hispanic heritage, has said that he doesn't remember making the remarks and that "is most certainly not how I feel"; Univision has not released the video and has said that there is no audio available.)

Then, in remarks on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is running against former Nevada Assemblywoman Sharron Angle (R), expressed disbelief that Hispanics would support the Republican Party.

"I don't know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican," Reid said before a Hispanic crowd. (Reid's camp later clarified in a statement that Reid's "contention was simply that he doesn't understand how anyone, Hispanic or otherwise, would vote for Republican candidates.")

Perhaps more telling than the candidates' verbal stumbles, however, is their media strategy when it comes to courting the Hispanic vote.

Sandoval, Harry Reid and Reid's son Rory, who is running for governor, have all gone up with Spanish-language TV ads. The younger Reid released a spot last week that features him speaking -- in Spanish -- about how he studied the language in college and served as a missionary in Argentina. (In addition, Harry Reid approved his own ad in Spanish. Sandoval's ad aired during the World Cup final in July.)

Angle is the only one among the four candidates for governor or Senate who not aired any Spanish-language TV ads thus far. She has also been subject to criticism by some for reportedly ignoring the Spanish-language press. (An Angle spokesperson responded that Angle wants to get her message out "to all Nevada voters" and will be reaching out more "to both Spanish and English language media.")

In addition, the websites of both Harry and Rory Reid have Spanish-language versions, while those of Sandoval and Angle do not.

In an interview with the Fix today, Rory Reid said that the Hispanic community is "a very important voter bloc, and it's a community that I have worked with closely and feel a close connection to because of my life experience." He called his ability to speak the language "very helpful" in terms of understanding the concerns of the Hispanic community when he speaks with Spanish-speaking voters.

Sandoval's campaign also drew on the candidate's personal connection to Hispanic community.

"The Hispanic community is part of Brian's campaign because it's part of his life," Sandoval spokesperson Mary-Sarah Kinner said. "The Hispanic community is concerned about jobs and economy. They are hurting just like everyone else."

The courtship of Hispanic voters isn't a minor point in a state like Nevada.

According to exit polling, Hispanics accounted for 15 percent of the Nevada electorate in 2008, up from 12 percent in 2006 and 10 percent in 2004. (In 2008, Hispanics accounted for about 26 percent of Nevada's population, according to Census Bureau statistics.)

In the 2004 and 2008 presidential races, Hispanics in Nevada voted overwhelmingly Democratic, giving President Obama 76 percent to Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) 22 percent in 2008 and backing Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) with 60 percent over President George W. Bush's 39 percent in 2004.

But in the 2006 midterms, the gap was narrower. In the Senate race, 52 percent of Hispanics backed Democrat Jack Carter while 45 percent voted for incumbent Sen. John Ensign (R). (Ensign won re-election 55 percent to 41 percent.)

Meanwhile, in that year's gubernatorial race, 55 percent of Hispanics voted for then-state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus (D) and 37 percent backed Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons. (Gibbons bested Titus 48 percent to 44 percent.)

Those numbers suggest that while Nevada Hispanics have trended Democratic in presidential years, Republicans may have a greater chance at making inroads among the Hispanic community in midterm years -- and that success for Democrats hinges, at least in part, on turning out those Hispanic voters who voted overwhelmingly for Obama two years ago.

At first glance, it seems that isolated incidents like those of Reid and Sandoval over recent weeks aren't likely to overwhelm broader concerns about the economy and other national issues among the Hispanic community. They are an unwanted distraction for the candidates in question but it's hard to see either comment change how Hispanics view either candidate in any meaningful way.

What might impact Hispanic voters this fall is the immigration law passed in neighboring Arizona this spring that has sparked a national debate over immigration policy.

Does the fact that a Republican governor signed the bill impact how either Sandoval or Angle is viewed by Hispanics? Or is what happens in Arizona inconsequential to voters -- Hispanic or otherwise -- in Nevada?

Ultimately, the answers to those questions matter far more to the electoral outcome in the Silver State than isolated gaffes by Reid, Sandoval, Angle or anyone else.

By Felicia Sonmez  |  August 12, 2010; 5:24 PM ET
Categories:  Governors , Senate  
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