Analysis: Why The First Latino President Could Be A Republican, And Not A Democrat

With more Republican Latinos being elected in high-profile positions, Democrats fret that their opponents could begin to erode their advantage among Latino voters, who currently favor President Obama over Mitt Romney two-to-one.

At the GOP convention in Tampa, Martinez made a direct case to Latino voters to consider switching from Democrat to Republican, using her compelling personal journey from left to right. She told the story of a revelation she had after her husband and she dined with two Republicans and discussed issues like the size and scope of government.

"And when we left that lunch, we got in the car and I looked over at Chuck and said, 'I'll be damned, we're Republicans,'" said Martinez.

That's a scary prospect for Democrats with Latinos becoming an ever-growing political force in America. Over 12 million are expected to vote in this year's presidential election and by 2050, Latinos are expected to make up 29 percent of the nation's total population.

NALEO Executive Director Arturo Vargas said that both parties have struggled to truly integrate Latinos in their ranks, but pointed out that Democrats have done a particularly poor job at nurturing rising Latino leaders while Republicans have used opportunities like a wave election in 2010 to get Latinos elected.

"The party had candidates ready to go for an election in 2010 that really helped Republican office-seekers," he said. "We haven't seen the Democrats position Latinos for statewide office in that way."

Republicans have put programs into place designed to follow up on the momentum sparked by the victories of Rubio, Martinez, and Sandoval in 2010.

The Republican State Leadership Committee launched a $3 million initiative last year designed to recruit 100 Latino Republicans to run for state and local offices nationwide.

While Latino Republicans so far haven't translated into Latino votes, party figures crow that they have looked beyond predominantly-Latino cities, towns, and congressional districts to find Latinos to run for office. GOP strategist Ana Navarro pointed to the example of Rep. Raúl Labrador.

"We have a Puerto Rican, Mormon, Republican congressman from Idaho. That for me blew my mind," she said at a Univision/ABC News/National Journal event in Tampa.

Navarro argued that by exposing Latino candidates to conservatives, whites, and other types of voters, the party has better prepared them to win in statewide contests when Latinos typically make up only a fraction of the electorate.

"We are electing them as mainstream candidates, which allows them to be mainstream elected officials," she said. "They're not just about immigration, they are not just about Hispanic issues. They can go out and be popular with the Republican base … We're not just trotting out Hispanic surnames or Hispanic faces. The truth is, they are stars within our party and they are not token Hispanics, they are full-fledged Republicans."

Vargas said that it's easier for Latino Republicans to rise to the top because there are fewer of them to compete against one another for the spotlight. But he said that Democrats need to do more at the grassroots level to develop Latino candidates.

The party did recruit former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a Harlem native of Puerto Rican descent, to run for Senate in Arizona. But it passed up the opportunity to back New Mexico State Auditor Hector Balderas, 39, who unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic Senate primary against party favorite Rep. Martin Heinrich, 40.

Vargas said it's stunning that New Mexico, a state whose electorate is around 40 percent Latino, hasn't had a Latino senator since Democrat Joseph Montoya served in the 1960s and 1970s.

"The real danger is that you get the perception you get from the conventions that the Republican Party has this great bench of Latinos and the Democrats do not," he said. "The danger is in the perception you're not doing enough."

Becerra said that it's going to take a more concerted effort from his party, from donors to activists, to bring along their crop of Latino leaders.

"We got the stars to do it," he said. "It's letting the talent percolate to the top."

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