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

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez speaking at the Republican National Convention in
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez speaking at the Republican National Convention in August.

Democrats enjoy a clear advantage over Republicans when it comes to support from Latino voters, but the GOP has an edge in another key area: developing promising Latino political talent.

It is a fact that's not quite apparent at first glimpse. Democrats featured at least one dozen Latino speakers at their convention last week, including big political names such as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, and California Rep. Xavier Becerra (not to mention Eva Longoria). While he's not considered a future presidential contender, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez is the highest-ranking Latino Democrat and has served as his party's campaign chief.

Democrats also made a point of promoting its most prominent Latino rising star: San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who was the first Latino keynote speaker in the history of the Democratic Party.

While Castro, 37, could one day become a legitimate White House contender, his selection is also emblematic of the Democrats' short "bench" of up-and-coming Latino politicians who could become their party's standard bearers.

Republicans also featured a diverse lineup at their convention, including big names like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, 41, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, 53, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, 49. All are ahead of Castro on the political totem pole since they hold statewide office. And being from Texas, Castro faces an uncertain path should he chose to run for higher office in the red state.

Latino Democrats for decades have far outnumbered Latino Republicans from Congress down to local school boards. There are nearly eight times as many Latino Democrats than Latino Republicans in public office today, according to data provided by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

But Republicans have made some serious gains over the past half decade. Since 2007, Latino Democrats have increased their ranks by 12 percent while Latino Republicans have multiplied by 44 percent. Republicans have also been able to advance Latino officials farther up the ladder: 32 percent of Latino Republicans serve at the state or federal level, compared to 17 percent of Democrats.

Democrats point out Republican leaders like Rubio have been unable to woo Latino voters to the GOP, arguing that the party's support for smaller government and hard line on immigration policies won't sell to the majority of Latino voters, the majority of whom identify as Democrats.

The party boasted of its strong grassroots support, saying that a record 800 Latino delegates participated at the Democratic convention in Charlotte while the Republicans had a much less diverse convention floor.

Two weeks ago at the GOP convention in Tampa, Villaraigosa dismissed Republicans' Latino prime-time lineup as token "brown face[s]" with "Spanish surname[s]."

"Window dressing doesn't do much," he said.

But party leaders who gathered in Charlotte were clearly concerned about their ability to develop and nurture a younger generation of Latino leaders.

"Good for the Republicans that they have high-ranking Latinos in their ranks. And shame on Democrats if we don't see that better do the same thing real soon," Becerra said at a luncheon sponsored by Univision, ABC News, and National Journal.

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."