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In Battleground Colorado, Republicans Courting Hispanic Voters

Photo by Kirk Siegler

In 2008, more than 60% of Colorado’s Hispanic electorate voted for Barack Obama who campaigned on a platform that included an overhaul to the country’s immigration system.

But this year, amid a still struggling economy, Colorado Republicans say Democrats can no longer take Latinos for granted and for the first time the GOP has launched an organized outreach effort to court Hispanic voters.

Immigration or the Economy

Whether or not Latinos will still mobilize for Democrats this fall is uncertain, but it is clear there’s a growing faction of disgruntlement within the voting block.

This was on display outside one of President Obama’s recent campaign stops in Denver, where Rosa Linda Lozano joined a small protest staged by the new group, Colorado Hispanic Republicans. 

“They don’t care about the immigrant,” Ms. Lozano said. “They keep using that issue so that they can draw us in and do whatever they want with us so that we don’t pay attention to the other issues.”

A stay at home mom from Parker, she said Democrats have used immigration as a wedge issue, when the economy is more important. 

Unemployment among Colorado’s Latino community is higher than the state average, 11.5% according to the latest available figures and slightly higher even among Hispanic men.

Republicans hope to capitalize on this come November. To that end, the state party and the Romney Campaign staged a Hispanic small business roundtable this week in the swing voting district of Jefferson County.

“I was looking for President Obama but I don’t see an empty chair around,” joked Edgar Antillon as he kicked off the event amid laughs and cheers.

Antillon, chair of the Romney campaign’s Hispanic outreach effort in nearby Adams County, said Mr. Obama promised immigration reform and didn’t deliver.

“A few months before the election, he decides that he remembers us again,” Mr. Antillon said. 

Specifically, he was referring to the Obama Administration’s recent relaxing of deportation policies for some illegal immigrants who have recently graduated high school here.  That came after the ‘DREAM’ Act, which would have given in-state college tuition to many children of illegal immigrant parents, stalled in the grid-locked Congress in 2010. 

Another panelist, Congressman Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) was more forthright: “Democrats love to pander to the Hispanic community.” 

But Rep. Labrador, Idaho’s first Latino member of Congress, said Democrats rarely offer actual solutions for Hispanic communities. 

“It was Bush who was trying to do immigration reform,” Mr. Labrador continued. “I think it’s going to be Mitt Romney who will actually solve the problem that we have which is one of the most important issues that we can solve in the next four years.” 

Democrats on the Attack

But most Republicans, Mitt Romney included, don’t support providing tuition breaks for illegal immigrants.  Romney has also said he supports a high-tech border fence and an e-verify system for employers.

So even if immigration isn’t the main campaign issue this year, it still poses problems for Republicans’ efforts to court Latinos.

Hoping to capitalize on Mitt Romney’s recent hard-line tone on immigration and also worried about projections of lackluster turnout, Democrats have blitzed Colorado’s airwaves with ads in Spanish touting the President’s education and health care policies.  Some feature Latino campaign volunteers going door to door in Hispanic neighborhoods. 

“It takes two to tango,” said State Rep. Dan Pabon (D-Denver). 

Reached outside the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte this week, Pabon said the President has steadily pushed for the DREAM Act and a broader immigration overhaul in his first term.

Pabon said Mr. Obama could only do so much with an “obstructionist” Congress.

“Every time the president has a proposal that’s going to help hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans who are Hispanic, the Congress says absolutely not.” Mr. Pabon said.

A Race to Mobilize

Republicans haven’t won a majority of the Latino vote in the US for some four decades.  Hispanics now account for close to 10% of the state’s electorate. They make up 20% of Colorado’s population.  Those on both sides of the political aisle say the race could come down to whichever party does a better job registering voters.

Back at the small business forum, Eleanor Carrillo, a retired teacher from Adams County, agrees the immigration issue is a tough one for Republicans; even as deportations have been going up under President Obama.

“They live here, they pay taxes and like anybody else,” Mrs. Carrilo said. “But yet when it comes down to helping them, there’s nothing there.”

Carrillo thinks the President waited too long to act on immigration.  Mr. Obama won 58% of the vote in Adams County in 2008.  But Carrillo at least, plans to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012 because she says his business experience will help bring jobs to Colorado. 

“Because gas prices, food prices, everything’s going up and we see no relief in sight,” she said.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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