Latino Pioneer Defies Hispanic Groups on Immigration in Nevada

One candidate speaks Spanish and is counting on the support of Hispanic voters to get elected.

The other draws a passionate following from the anti-immigrant groups and Tea Party movement.

Guess which is the Hispanic?

The Republican candidate in the Nevada governor’s race, Brian Sandoval, is a Tea Party darling whose positions on immigration have endeared him to right, and drawn support from independents. A former state judge and member of the state legislature in Nevada, Sandoval is a rising political star who has already made history as the state’s first Latino attorney general.

Now Sandoval, a gifted orator with boyish good looks, is poised to become the state’s first Hispanic governor. The latest polls show him strongly ahead of his opponent, Democrat Rory Reid, by more than 20 points.

But the politician of Mexican descent has run a campaign defiant on issues near and dear to Nevada Latino advocacy groups. Sandoval publicly declared his support of Arizona law SB1070, which allows police officers to stop and ID anyone they suspect of being an undocumented immigrant, and has said he’s against issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Those positions have him in a delicate balancing act – to assume tough, conservative stances, without alienating skittish Hispanic voters, which make up one-fourth of the state’s electorate.

“He’s tried to try walk this fine line in not alienating his Republican base, but also not, in a sense, just rejecting Latino concerns,” said Erik Herzik, chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Sandoval has campaigned in Hispanic neighborhoods, aired Spanish-language commercials and spoke to Spanish-language media to highlight his historic candidacy. And he’s focused on what he’d do for the economy and jobs, rather than his views on immigration. But his position on immigration has cost him votes in the Hispanic community.

Fernando Romero, president of the Las Vegas-based Hispanics in Politics, a non-partisan group, is one prominent Hispanic who just months ago strongly supported Sandoval. Romero said he was proud and excited when he first learned Sandoval was running, and thought he was “the kind of person I would want to be the first Hispanic governor of Nevada.”

The Democrat threw his support behind Sandoval and urged all his Hispanic friends to do the same. But then he saw Sandoval speak during his first Republican political debate in Reno, and Romero was “dumbfounded.” That was the first time Sandoval gave his views on immigration.

“I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ I thought I knew him,” Romero said. “And right then and there my allegiance changed.”

The anti-Sandoval Latinos have thrown their support behind Reid, who has struggled to gain traction in the race. Reid, the son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is in a tight race of his own, has been hurt by his father’s name and by Sandoval’s larger-than-life personality.

But other than Reid’s positions – he’s against the Arizona law – something else has endured him to the Latino community: He speaks Spanish, when Sandoval does not.

Nearing the finish line, Sandoval leads in all polls and takes a generous attitude towards former supporters within the Latino community. In interviews, he has said if elected he’d work with Hispanic groups. But his Latinos critics seem to be reserving judgment.

“With Brian Sandoval, should he win, people are taking a wait-and-see attitude approach,” said Vicenta Montoya, president of the Nevada-based Sí Se Puede Latino Democratic Caucus. “There is going to be the initial pride of having the first Latino governor, but as far as getting any kind of accolades – oh no. You are not going to get it because of accident of birth you are the first of something. We want to see results. And there is going to be high, high expectations.”

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