PHOENIX -- Turns out the Latino vote was the sleeping giant people expected in the 2012 election. Now that the votes are mostly counted, it will be easy to see just how important this group was for a few key races in the West.
Once the dust settles, researchers at the polling firm Latino Decisions say 2012 will be historic. The group’s Gabriel Sanchez says a poll conducted just before Election Day suggests a record 75 percent of Latinos voted for President Barack Obama.
"The Latino vote being overwhelming in favor of the president is definitely a big part of the story," Sanchez said. "I think you can say definitively it’s what put him over the top in a lot of these key states."
And some of those key states in the West showed even stronger support.
"Check this number out, 80 percent of Latinos in Nevada voted for Obama," Sanchez said.
Latino Decisions called Latino voters in battleground states like Colorado and Nevada part of the "Western firewall" that helped protect the president’s lead.
Nevada’s Latinos now make up 27 percent of its population. And in Las Vegas, Monze Garcia represents that growing clout. She’s 20 years old and voted early for Mr. Obama.
"It was my first time voting, so it was important for me to go out there. I mean everyone signed up. My best friend – I was like, ‘You gotta go.’ We had like a voting party we carpooled to the mall and we all voted," Garcia said.
By Wednesday morning, the president had won Nevada by six points, thanks in part to strong voter turnout in Clark County. That’s home to Las Vegas -- where nearly 20,000 additional Latinos registered this year compared to 2008.
But the region’s changing demographics could be felt in more than just presidential politics. Further east, in Texas, all eyes were on the 23rd Congressional District, where Tea Party incumbent Francisco Canseco lost his seat to Democrat Pete Gallego. He thanked supporters Tuesday night.
"I am one of those that will tell you I cannot … no se puede solo … I can’t do it alone. There’s 29 counties," Gallego said.
You heard right. Twenty-nine counties in the congressional district. It’s one of the largest districts the country, covering a humongous stretch along the U.S.-Mexican border.
"There’s a lot of voters as we are seeing tonight. And all of you helped get that message out. And all of you helped make a difference to get us to this spot," Gallego said.
Observers say this race was a window into the future of Texas politics. To win, Gallego had to come from behind to outlast a powerful bloc of conservative white voters around San Antonio. Ultimately, the district’s majority Latino electorate preferred the Democrat -- even though those voters are often cited for poor turnout at the polls.
But in Arizona, a completely different story.
"Who knows more about Mexico and immigration than the Sheriff does?"
At 80 years old, Joe Arpaio easily won a sixth term as sheriff of Maricopa County. That’s despite a massive effort to energize Latino voters in a campaign called Adios Arpaio. The group registered more than 30,000 voters in the days leading up to the election.
Arpaio acknowledged the effort. "I want mobilize the Latino community in a civil way. Come. Let’s get together let's talk. And I try to do that," he said.
"But it’s gotten worse and worse and worse. Very sad what they’re doing to this Sheriff," Arpaio said of himself.
In 2012, Arizona’s registered Latino voters surpassed half a million. That's why Adios Arpaio’s Daria Ovide said this wasn’t a total defeat.
"This is a steady pattern of growth in a community of color that will soon be a majority in Arizona. And we keep going. We keep growing," Ovide said.
While analysts and advocates continue to say wait until next year -- that Arizona’s Latino vote will wake up someday -- it may just be that Arizona is different from other Western states. Republican Senator-Elect Jeff Flake put it this way.
"I think Arizonans want someone who stands for fiscal discipline, limited government, free-markets. We’re a conservative state, and I think that’s what they wanted," Flake said.
And Flake should know. He beat Richard Carmona -- a Democrat of Puerto Rican descent -- by five points.