Democrats Lag in Recruiting Latino Candidates

In 2012 and beyond, the party's success will depend on support from the growing Hispanic vote. So why aren't more Latinos running for office as Dems?

Marco Rubio - AP Photo:Abdel Magid al-Fergany - banner.jpg

President Obama's numbers are cratering with nearly every demographic, but the latest Gallup weekly tracking poll shows his approval dropping most steeply among Latinos. It portends poorly not only for the president, but for a Democratic coalition that increasingly depends on their strong support.

Obama's support among Latinos dropped 20 points since his election, with only 47 percent of Latinos approving of his job performance, according to the poll. In 2008 Obama won 67 percent of the Latino vote; House Democrats took 60 percent amid a drubbing in the midterms. As National Journal reported last week, the recession has hit Latinos particularly hard. And Obama hasn't spent much political capital on immigration reform even though it is a top priority for Latino groups.

Talk to enough Democratic strategists about the 2012 landscape and one sees the problem extends beyond the presidency. They say a dearth of viable statewide Latino candidates is hurting the party's chances. Only two such candidates are running next year: New Mexico Auditor Hector Balderas, who was rebuffed by much of the establishment that prefers Rep. Martin Heinrich; and retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, whose Senate campaign in Texas has been virtually silent since he announced his candidacy in May.

Balderas has a good shot of knocking off the presumably better-funded Heinrich in the primary because the majority of New Mexico's Democratic electorate is Latino. Sanchez is a different story. Although he may win the nomination, party officials harbor few illusions about the general election prospects of the former Iraq commander of coalition forces under George W. Bush. He's looking less like a Tony Sanchez, the Texas businessman who gave Rick Perry a run for his money in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, and more like a candidate who simply is not ready for prime time.

Their challenges are not lost on national Democrats and contrast with Republican efforts to spotlight their newly elected Latinos, who are emerging as possible presidential running mates. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio dismisses vice-presidential talk, but would be a logical running mate for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Beyond diversifying the ticket, he is a charismatic conservative who could rally the base. Others in the mix: Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, who was one of the first governors to endorse Perry and has tried playing kingmaker with his state's third-in-the-nation nominating contest; and popular New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who would be the first Latino woman on a national ticket and would be the first woman to sit a heartbeat away from the presidency. All three hail from battleground states.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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