July 13, 2010 -- From a sprawling district on the U.S.-Mexican border to the northernmost reaches of Idaho, a handful of Hispanic candidates in competitive races are bucking political conventional wisdom. They're running as Republicans.
In some cases, such as in Idaho, they are competing in House districts with small Hispanic populations. Others are running in majority-Hispanic districts, such as in Southwest Texas, where voters typically send Democrats to Washington.
The campaigns are playing out as an increasingly intense debate over immigration unfolds in Washington and border states such as Arizona. Democratic leaders, including President Obama, have called on Congress to pass an immigration bill this year.
"It's exciting that we have a lot of Hispanic conservative candidates," said Raul Labrador, a state lawmaker who was born in Puerto Rico and who is challenging Idaho Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick this year. "What's notable is that it's not people who are afraid of saying they're conservative."
There are 28 Hispanic or Latino members of Congress and 24 of them — including two non-voting delegates — are Democrats, according to the two Hispanic lawmaker groups in Congress. The nation's only Hispanic governor, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, is also a Democrat.
Hispanics voted for Obama by a better than 2-to-1 margin over Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, according to the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center. A July Gallup Poll found 55% of Hispanics approve of Obama, compared with 89% of blacks and 38% of whites.
Still, GOP candidates said they aren't willing to cede the nation's fastest-growing minority group to Democrats.
Some point to George W. Bush, who aggressively campaigned among Hispanics when he ran for president, sometimes speaking Spanish on the campaign trail.
Bush captured 35% of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and 44% in 2004, according to surveys of voters leaving polling places.
"The Republican Party gave Hispanics a voice when we were not a targeted group," said Alci Maldonado, chairwoman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
The group was initially created as part of the Republican National Committee.
But the effort by both parties to target Hispanics is complicated this year by the immigration debate. It has turned largely on an Arizona law that requires police to determine a person's immigration status if they are stopped or arrested and there is a "reasonable suspicion" they are in the U.S. illegally.
Republicans, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, have defended the law. The Obama administration, arguing that it will lead to a state-by-state patchwork of immigration rules, sued to block its enforcement. A Gallup Poll in April found a majority of Americans who had heard of the law supported it.
"We've haven't secured the border," said Francisco "Quico" Canseco, who is running for the Texas district Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a Democrat, has held, on and off, since 1997. "Arizona acted because of a failure on the part of the federal government."
Democrats say the issue is a weak spot for the GOP among Hispanic voters. Joe Garcia, a Democrat, is running for the South Florida House district held by Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. He said Bush did a good job courting Hispanics but that the rest of the party has made them feel unwelcome.
"If you can overlook that the party … says, 'You don't belong,' then the Republican Party may be a good place for you," he said.
Among the GOP Hispanic candidates:
• District Attorney Susana Martinez is running for governor of New Mexico along with GOP lieutenant governor nominee John Sanchez. In June, Martinez aired a television ad in which she speaks directly to voters in Spanish.
• Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, is running in a three-way Senate race in Florida, which the non-partisan Cook Political Report calls a tossup.
• Jon Barela, is challenging Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich, a freshman, for the New Mexico House seat that includes Albuquerque. Barela said he hears from many former Democratic Hispanics who are upset with the direction the country is taking under the Democrats.
"It's no surprise that you're seeing Hispanics feel at home within the Republican Party," Barela said.