ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Experts predict Hispanic voters will play an important role in the 2012 presidential election, particularly in key western states like Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. On Friday, a newly formed conservative organization called Hispanic Leadership Network (HLN) convened in Albuquerque for two days to discuss the Latino vote.
One of the biggest reasons the group decided to meet in New Mexico: Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. She is the first Latina to be elected governor in the United States. In New Mexico, Hispanics account for about 42 percent of voters, the highest in the nation. More than one-third of them voted for her last November.
According to Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post writers group, that's a noteworthy accomplishment.
“It says something that the barrier that was broken with the election of Susana Martinez...was broken by the Republican Party,” he said.
Navarrette adds that Latinos have voted Democratically for 13 straight presidential elections and the Democratic Party now tend to take their votes for granted. That presents an opportunity for the Republican Party, he said.
“Latinos are always going to be Democratic. They're usually not going to change their party registration,” he said. “But they will vote and they have demonstrated that they will vote for the right kind of Republican.”
Governor Martinez represents that kind of Republican. She is Mexican-American and speaks Spanish. Some Hispanics already share similar beliefs with conservatives on issues like religion, gay marriage and abortion.
But then there's the “I” word: Immigration, the biggest wedge between Hispanics and the Republican Party.
Former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman acknowledges Republicans have a problem when it comes to immigration. He's one of the founders of the Hispanic Leadership Network.
“It's a tone issue, you know, some of the angry voices,” he said. “We've got to find some solutions that comply with the rule of law.”
Dee Dee Garcia Blase is the president of the conservative Hispanic group “Somos Republicans.” She sat in a gray blazer and skirt at an outdoor reception with a concerned look on her face.
“Our organization was growing rapidly, about 200 or so new members every month,” Garcia said. “But when it was discovered that most of the GOP senators did not vote for the Dream Act, new member registrations just completely halted.”
Sitting next to her is Julio Dominguez, a member of the Albuquerque Tequila Party, a political group created to counteract backlash against Hispanics and immigrants. He said Republicans have a problem reaching out and communicating effectively with Latinos. He points to the conference attendance as an example.
“When I first got here my first thought is that half of the people here are not Hispanic,” he said. “My second thought is that half of the people here are either speakers or politicians, but not necessarily Latino voters that you would see in your neighborhood.”
At nearly every panel during the two-day gathering, the consensus was that if Republicans want a bigger chunk of the Hispanic vote, they will have to change their approach on immigration. Ultimately, that change may depend heavily on the Republican presidential nominee.