Can Latino voters take the fight to America's right?

Arizona's growing Hispanic population has borne the brunt of Republicans' bitter rhetoric against immigrants. Now they plan to turn the state Democrat

Phoenix

Whoever among the Republican presidential hopefuls wins Arizona tonight – and polls suggest it will be Mitt Romney – they may in the process have lost it, too. The state is on the front line in the battle over illegal immigration and their rhetoric on the issue will have pleased white conservatives – but not most Latinos.

To predict that this state will flip from red to blue in November would be premature. Only once since Truman has it voted to send a Democrat to the White House in the shape of Bill Clinton in 1996. This is the territory of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Jan Brewer, heroes to conservatives whose careers are bound together by their determination to target undocumented workers. It is also where SB 1070 came to be, the now infamous immigration enforcement law passed by the Arizona legislature that is so draconian that the Justice Department is seeking to have it blocked.

Yet if Arizona has served in the last years as the poster-child of the anti-illegal immigration lobby, it might emerge in 2012 as the ground zero of a backlash. There are stirrings of optimism among Democrats that infuriated Latinos may help President Barack Obama not only steal Arizona from the Republicans in November, but help him build a whole new national coalition to return him to power.

Nor are Democrats alone in wondering if this year's runners for the Republican nomination have gone too far in straining to outdo one another to preach the toughest possible line on immigration, notably at their debates, with talk of fences, ditches and deportations. Party grandees like Karl Rove are unsettled, too, and it is surely why Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican-born, lamented last week that all the candidates are running too far to the right.

The cost to the Republicans may become obvious in Arizona first because it is where the anti-illegal immigration effort has been so vicious. It is also about demographics. The state has added 600,000 Latinos to its population in just 10 years, a remarkable 46-per-cent jump. Latinos – also called Hispanics – now represent 30 per cent of the state's population. More pertinently, they will account this year for nearly one out of every five eligible voters.

According to Daniel Valenzuela, a thick-set fireman of Mexican descent who last November was elected to the Phoenix City Council on a wave of support from his own community, the Latinos here have lost their patience and are doing now what they have not done before: showing up to vote. "It's a movement of people who will no longer let a politician run on rhetoric that is so different from their own values," he said in an interview. And he believes because of their awakening, Mr Obama will indeed take Arizona in November.

Hispanic voter intentions are not simple. There is undoubted disappointment that promises made by Mr Obama on immigration reform have not been delivered – though the White House lays the blame on Republicans – and widespread disgust that, under his administration, deportations have sky-rocketed. But if that offered an opening for Mr Romney and Rick Santorum, they have shown no inclination to go through it.

Instead, their determination to pander to the right was no more evident than at last week's debate in Mesa, just east of Phoenix. Asked about SB 1070, which allows police to demand proof of legal residence from almost anyone they think might possibly be in the US illegally, Mr Romney flatly called it a "model" for the country as a whole. He also reiterated his opposition to the Dream Act, a law supported by Democrats that would confer citizenship on the offspring of illegal aliens who were born in America and if they serve in the military or pursue higher education.

It is a radicalism that Mr Obama will exploit. It is why he was a guest last Tuesday of America's most popular Hispanic radio host, Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo, saying that Latino voters' choice in the election "will not be that difficult" because "so far, we haven't seen any of the Republican candidates even support immigration reform". And it is why immediately after the Mesa debate, the Democratic National Committee released a video called "Mitt Romney: The GOP's Most Extreme Candidate".

The perception that sorting out America's dysfunctional immigration policies and making them fairer is not even on the Republican agenda any more is also what stirred Mr Rove, former counsellor to George W Bush (who did push for reform), to write recently that an "anti-Hispanic attitude is suicidal" for his party. "The GOP won't be a majority party if it cedes the young or Hispanics to Democrats," he said.

Brendan Walsh, who is organising director in Arizona for Unite Here, a union of hospitality workers, went door to door in councilman Valenzuela's district in West Phoenix last November and says the Hispanic revolution that Mr Rove fears has already started.

"It's going to be big. A lot of activists who worked on our campaign, many of them Latino activists, are really excited about 2012," he said last week, also predicting that Mr Obama will win the state. And this, he added, is only the beginning. "In 15 years from now, the politics in this state will be unrecognisable."

A man not prone to self-aggrandisement, Mr Valenzuela points to one notable statistic about his victory. On voting day last November, the Latino turnout in his district was up by an astonishing 500 per cent compared to four years earlier. It helped, of course, that he is Hispanic and appealing (the seat was previously held by a white property developer). And he had the support of union and student activists, including Mr Walsh, working to get people to the polls. Even so, something new seems to be going on.

"What is happening in Arizona is a movement and that is what happened in my council race," Mr Valenzuela, who ran as an independent, explained. "The community is waking up and looking at the state of Arizona and they are looking at some of these bills that are being considered (in the state legislature) and they are saying that this is not who we are." And for almost all of his constituents, he adds, there "has to be a path to citizenship" for the 11 million who are already in America without papers.

It is a movement that Mr Romney, if he becomes the nominee, will have to stop if he is to hold on to Arizona and possibly to other states, too. His critics call him a flip-flopper, but on this issue that resonates so deeply among Hispanic voters, he will have to stand on his head.

State profile: Arizona

Voting record: For as long as anyone can remember, Arizonans have backed the Republican candidate for President with a healthy margin. In 1980, Ronald Regan took 61 per cent of the vote, with Jimmy Carter only managing a modest 28 per cent.

Demographics: Recent growth means Latinos form around 30 per cent of the population, making them a potentially-pivotal constituency in November.

Big issues: Arizona's tough policy on immigration has won plaudits from conservatives. Republican candidates have backed this push – but that could cost the eventual nominee in the race against President Barack Obama, as the Hispanic vote could yet swing the state for the Democrats.

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