Colorado's Latino Voters Offer a Glimpse of a Shifting National Landscape

In Arapahoe County to the southeast, the population nearly doubled from 57,000 to 105,000 over the past ten years. Jefferson County, to the west, saw a more modest 45 percent growth rate, but one that mirrored the overall rate of growth in the state.

State Rep. Jim Kerr (R), who represents a portion of Jefferson County, has seen the shift firsthand during his eight years in office and recognizes that it poses a challenge to his party.

"It does put us at a disadvantage," he said. "The population shift has made Jefferson County a battleground county. At one point, it was solid red … Now, it's a mix."

Kerr said that the way the GOP has spoken about the immigration issue has hurt its brand, especially the presence of Tom Tancredo, a former congressman and immigration firebrand. Still, he says that others in the party are working to reach out to the Latino community, especially to socially-conservative voters.

"We're trying to build a better message, to be a big tent party," Kerr added. "We want those values in our party, those family values. We want that respect."

Kerr's sentiment was echoed by Rolando Martinez, a voter from Colorado Springs who said he has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan and plans to support Romney.

"He needs to get a little more involved in the Hispanic community and hold more rallies for the Hispanic community," he said after a Monday-night rally for Romney in Denver that drew a crowd of 5,500.

Martinez, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, also thinks that Romney should have a more accommodating stance toward the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants.

"Do something concrete for the illegals, man," he said. "I'm not saying give them money. Give them amnesty, give them papers, don't deny them a license to go to work, come on."

Romney did take action on immigration Wednesday, saying that he would not deport undocumented immigrants granted deferred action by the Obama administration. And Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call says that the campaign has conducted multiple surrogate events tailored to Latino voters over the past several months.

But Obama still remains poised to win big among Latinos. An impreMedia/Latino Decisions poll showed the president leading Romney 73-24 percent, his largest margin yet this election year, and 61-33 percent in battleground states like Colorado.

Despite those numbers, Democrats know they can't take their Latino support for granted. The unemployment rate for Latinos stands at 10.2 percent and Colorado's unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, just a hair above the national average.

And there is bubbling frustration in the community over the lack of progress on immigration reform during Obama's first term, given that he promised to bring up a reform bill during his first year in office.

"There is a lot of skepticism that either presidential candidate will follow through on his promises," said Christine Márquez-Hudson, executive director of the Denver-based Mi Casa Resource Center, an economic-empowerment organization.

Latino voters in the state are also more inclined to match the state's independent-minded political ethos rather than stay beholden to one party or the other. One-third of registered Latino voters in the state are unaffiliated, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

"Hispanics aren't as willing to affiliate with one party or another because history has taught them that they are likely to get burned when they join a group," said state Rep. Dan Pabon, a Democrat who represents northwest Denver. "Every time you expect Hispanics or Latinos to vote in a bloc and come out, it's never worked out. Whenever you take that vote for granted, it inevitably fails."

While Obama and Democrats have been effective in establishing a base of Latino support and recruiting Latinos to run for office in the past four years, Republicans and Democrats here agree that Latinos could swing the outcome of elections for years to come.

"The question is who will they come out for, said Pabon. "I don't think that necessarily gets resolved in this election."

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