Democrats stared down some intimidating challenges in the West on Election Day, and they owe some thanks to Latino voters for delivering them from the lion's den.
In Nevada, a state with 24.3 percent Hispanic population, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid held onto his seat by a five percent margin. Hispanic/Latino voters made up 15 percent of the electorate, according to CBS exit polls, and broke 68 - 30 percent for Reid. His advantage among Latinos made up 5.7 percent of the vote. He won by 5 percent.
Latinos made the difference in this race.
(It happened to be the signature victory for Democrats last night, helping the party avoid a crushing, morale-busting defeat, letting the party safely retain control of the Senate and look themselves in the mirror, at least, knowing it could have been worse.)
In California, Republicans Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina spent over $176 million combined. These races were some of the most highly publicized in the country, but the two former CEOs lost, and again the Latino vote had a lot--a whole lot--to do with it.
Over a third of California is Hispanic--35.7 percent, to be more precise--and Latinos made up 22 percent of the electorate in Tuesday's midterms, according to CBS exit polls.
Latinos broke 63-31 for Democrat Jerry Brown over Whitman, meaning his advantage among Latino voters accounted for just over seven percent advantage in the overall vote, based on CBS exits. He won by 13 percent.
They broke 65 - 28 for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer over Fiorina, accounting for just over 8 percent of her advantage. She won by 9 percent.
While Latinos didn't make up the difference in those races, they give Democrats a seemingly permanent edge in California, trending blue and skeptical of Republicans after Prop. 187, the state-run citizenship screening program pushed by immigration hardline Gov. Pete Wilson and passed in 1994, but later voided as unconstitutional in federal court. Since then, Republicans have had a tough time in California. Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren only mustered 38 percent of the vote in 1998, and the state is represented by two Democrats in the Senate.
Hispanics turned out well in this election, which is a good sign for Democrats. Expanding Hispanic populations in the U.S. can only mean good things for Dems, it seems: Hispanic voters say the Democratic Party has more concern for Hispanics, by a margin of 47 - six percent, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report from early October.
Some have wondered whether Democrats' failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform or the DREAM Act, which would provide legal status to college students and military servicemembers, will cost them all that support.
This morning, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson warned that Democrats must deliver on these two agenda items, prized by Latino political interest groups. "Don't take the Hispanic vote for granted that you have," Richardson said.
But according to Pew's data, immigration isn't actually the number-one issue concern for Hispanics, contrary to the survey findings of at least one Hispanic political/interest group. Education topped the list, with 58 percent calling it a top issue; jobs came next at 54 percent; health care came next at 51 percent; the federal budget deficit ranked next at 35 percent; and immigration ranked only fifth, with 31 percent calling it a top concern.
So how have Democrats earned this advantage? The story is two-fold: 1) they actively court Hispanic votes where Republicans don't, and 2) their rhetoric on immigration is much more friendly to Hispanics.
The Nevada Senate race, at least, gives Republicans an example of how to lose Hispanic votes. Sharron Angle took a hard line on border security and aired ads with Latinos in them; then, fielding a question on these ads, she not only misled a group of Latino students by suggesting 9/11 terrorists came from Canada, but told the students they "look a little more Asian"; she then concluded the race with one of the most fearful, racially charged ads national political observers had seen since the presidential bid of Tom Tancredo.
"When it comes to immigration, it's very complex," says Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, which endorsed Fiorina in California this year. One has to look at the separate dimensions of "the policy and then how you talk about the policy, the rhetoric that's involved," Lopez says.
"Border security is completely on the table with the majority of Latino voters, and Latino voters in general--punishing illegal alien smugglers and criminals, and if you go after people who are here who are felons or gang members or something like that--the problem is with the rhetoric, when you start lumping people in with them," Lopez said.
Democrats' support for the DREAM Act, on a policy level, comes off as more sympathetic to Hispanics, he says: talking about helping children always plays better than suggesting the U.S. shouldn't give kids, whose parents brought them here at a young age, a chance at a life in America as they're trying to go to college.
It's not so much that Hispanics crave liberal policies, necessarily. It's more that Republicans have thrown away potential inroads with Latino voters, sacrificing them for anti-immigration or anti-illegal immigration votes, in some cases, like Angle's, appearing to some Latinos to play on racial fears.
Latinos could be open to conservative answers to immigration, Lopez says--answers that would make the system workable and solve the tremendous backlog that makes it so difficult to enter the country legally.
"Big government has screwed up immigration," Lopez says. "What's more conservative than that?"
Unfortunately for the GOP, Republicans aren't reaching for Latino votes in the way they perhaps should, strategically. As Hispanic populations grow--California's has grown by 3.3 percent of the total state population since 2006, while Nevada's grew by 4.6 percent, according to the Almanac of American Politics--the numbers game won't work for Republicans, unless fears of illegal immigration and unsecured border grow proportionally.
Unless that happens--as some Republicans, like Angle, seem to think it should--Latino voters will keep handing momentum and outright victories to Democrats in key elections like these.