Many of the old political chestnuts about how and when U.S. Latinos vote are eroding. Voting blocs like Mexican-Americans in border states and Cuban-Americans in South Florida are becoming less monolithic and more difficult to predict.
One of the commonly-held notions of 2014 is that Latino voter turnout for midterm elections is, in historical terms, less than that of other groups – a situation that analysts are suggesting will be compounded this November by a limited number of closely-contested races in the more demographically Latino-heavy areas of the country.
And while polls confirm that many Hispanic Americans care deeply about traditional hot-button issues like immigration reform, for many Latinos bread-and-butter economic issues may be more of a deciding factor in how they vote.
It is clear that this election cycle, Latino voters say they have a feeling of abandonment by both political parties, caused by the stalling out of immigration reform in Congress and the political football party leaders have played with the border crisis and deportations.
Some observers, however, say that there are at least a handful of gubernatorial and congressional races where Hispanics can – and likely will – play a key role in deciding who is elected. Some of which might even have an impact on the presidential election come 2016.
Candidates in tightly contested races in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Texas are vying for the Latino vote, of course, but so are candidates in less traditionally Hispanic states such as North Carolina and Kansas.
“At the state level, Latino voters will prove decisive in Colorado for U.S. Senate and in Florida and Illinois for gubernatorial elections,” Matt Barreto, a pollster for Latino Decisions told Fox News Latino via email. “Beyond these three states there are another four states we are tracking as possible Latino-influence states that few people are talking about. These states are North Carolina, Kansas, Georgia and Michigan. All of these states will have very close Senate elections in 2014 and they all have very fast growing Latino populations. “
Rocky Mountain Battle
Colorado is widely deemed to be the state where the Latino vote will have the biggest impact, especially in the governor’s race. A recent poll conducted by the Denver Post puts incumbent Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in a virtual tie with Republican challenger Bob Beauprez at 45 percent and 43 percent respectively.
Robert Preuhs, a professor of political science at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, said that Latinos in the Centennial State lean Democrat and that thanks to a number of canny moves– granting driver’s license and identification cards as well as in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants – the governor has gained a distinct advantage over Beauprez.
“There has been movement on a couple of policy issues that favor Latinos from the governor,” Preuh told FNL. “Beauprez can’t really benefit from anything because the GOP is not even focusing on immigration.”
The Colorado U.S. Senate race is also in the limelight. Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner is trying to unseat incumbent Democrat Mark Udall.
For the most part, Udall has polled better with Latinos, possibly thanks to Gardner’s strict stance on border security and immigration and his conservative views on the Affordable Care Act, another issue of particular interest to Latinos.
While currently, “there is not any movement of Latinos away from the Democrats,” according to Preuhs, the Republican's principal hope to win over enough of the Latino vote came from Pres. Obama.
By delaying executive action on immigration until after the elections, it could swing Latino voters to the Republican side. Or convince enough of them to stay home on election day.
“The president's postponed executive action may have helped Democrats fighting to hold onto their seats in tough Senate races,” the Denver Post reported. “But there are questions as to what it will do for Colorado Democrats Mark Udall and [the other U.S. Senator from Colorado] Michael Bennet, who have both come out in support of immigration reform. Colorado is a state with a large Latino community — an estimated 21 percent of the population — and strong immigration-rights movement.”
SB 1070, Immigration And Arizona's House Races
To the immediate southwest of Colorado sits another state where Hispanics could play a key role in deciding what lawmakers will be on Capitol Hill next term. Arizona has two key congressional races where immigration, border security and other issues of concern to Latinos are front and center.
Two Democratic incumbents – Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber – are facing off against Arizona’s Republican House Speaker Andy Tobin and former retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally in the state’s first and second U.S. Congressional districts.
Both Tobin and McSally support the state’s SB 1070 law that requires police officers to ask people detained for documents proving legal residency – a law that is controversial with the state's Hispanic voters. Tobin came under fire by Latino groups when he suggested months ago that migrant children from Central America might be carrying the Ebola virus.
Still, neither congressional district is overwhelmingly Latino in its electorate so wins for the incumbents aren't anywhere near guaranteed.
Neither Democrat has avid support from Latinos. Kirkpatrick received an 82 percent rating on the “2014 National Immigration Score Card,” which is compiled by a number of prominent Latino advocacy groups such as the Hispanic Federation and the League of United Latin American Citizens. Barber’s rating is 73 percent — the lowest of the five Democrats in the Arizona House delegation.
“Kirkpatrick and Barber’s political survival may depend upon drawing sharp contrasts with their Republican challengers on immigration and mobilizing marginal Latino voters,” David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a senior analyst at Latino Decisions wrote in the Washington Post.
Sunshine State Showdowns
In another battleground state, Florida Republicans are trying to maintain their traditional hold on Cuban-American voters even as this voting bloc appears to be drifting more and more toward the blue.
For decades, the GOP relied on the state’s conservative, anti-Castro Cuban-American population. But statistics from the Pew Research Center shows that the percentage of Cuban-American registered voters that identify as being or lean toward voting Republican has dropped from 64 percent in 2002 and 57 percent in 2006 to just 47 percent in 2013, while the Democratic numbers have doubled in that timeframe, from 22 percent in 2002 to 44 percent in 2013.
That shift has been reflected in presidential elections. In 2004, 78 percent of Cubans in Florida voted for George W. Bush, but in 2012, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state’s Cuban vote in a generation.
This year's gubernatorial race between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist has seen both sides courting the Cuban-American vote in South Florida.
In February, Scott made Cuban-American politician Carlos Lopez-Cantera the first Hispanic lieutenant governor in Sunshine State history, solidifying his support with voters in Miami-Dade County.
Trying to horn in on that action, Crist announced in July that Miami-Dade Democratic Party chief and state party vice-chairwoman Annette Taddeo-Goldstein – a Colombian-American – would be his pick for lieutenant governor.
This, however, seems to have had a little effect on Crist's chances winning over Latino voters. In April, a Survey USA poll showed Scott led Crist among Cuban-Americans by 52-46 percent. In late August, a new poll found that Cuban-Americans now favored Scott over Crist by 63 to 30 percent.
“My suspicion is that there is not much enthusiasm for Crist among Democrats,” Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee told Fox News Latino earlier this month.
One of the most heated races in the state is between Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia and Carlos Curbelo, a Republican Miami-Dade County School Board member.
For his part, Garcia has been attacking Curbelo’s background as a political lobbyist while playing up his family's Cuban background.
“When the Castro regime took over, Joe Garcia’s grandmother had the courage to leave Cuba to protect her family,” a recent television spot in Florida stated.
“She taught Joe Garcia to do what’s right, no matter what. So, when the president threatened to cut Medicare, Joe Garcia worked with both parties to protect those benefits … because it was the right thing to do for South Florida," the ad continued. "But Carlos Curbelo is just out for himself. Carlos Curbelo takes money from tea party backers and wants to end the Medicare guarantee, hurting seniors. Now we learn that Carlos Curbelo has a lobbying firm … and he’s hiding the firm’s client list from us.”
Curbelo for his part, has taken Garcia to task over allegations that his former chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia (no relation) was involved in electoral fraud from the 2012 election when Joe Garcia defeated the incumbent Republican, David Rivera.
“This is all part of the political circus created by Joe Garcia and others which has already landed three people in jail,” Curbelo said, according to the Sunshine State News. “Politicians like Joe Garcia seem to be willing to do anything to get elected. His recklessness has brought shame and embarrassment upon the residents of Congressional District 26 in South Florida.”
The effort seems to be paying off for the Republican. The Miami Herald earlier this week cited a report paid for by the Curbelo campaign showing that he holds a four-point lead in the race, and also holds a 51-38 percent among voters who have "seen, read or heard something" about Garcia’s ethics problems.
Includes reporting by Francisco Alvarado.
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.