Can the GOP's Star Senate Recruit Win Latinos?

With Rep. Joe Heck running for the Senate in Nevada, Republicans got a candidate they want. Now, he has to get results in the nation's most Hispanic-heavy battleground state.

Joe Heck might be the Republican Party's star Senate recruit: a House member, a physician, and a brigadier general in the Army Reserve who could deal Harry Reid one last blow by flipping the retiring Democrat's seat to the GOP in 2016.

First, though, Heck will have to overcome a sizable hurdle for any Republican. He has to win over Hispanic voters.

On Monday, Heck ended weeks of speculation about his future when he announced he would run for the Senate in Nevada, saying in a video unveiling his bid that he sees "a Nevada of unlimited opportunity, a place of better jobs, higher wages, and the chance to rise as far a the path will take us."

we turned the desert into a pl i see a nevada of unlimated opp, a place of better jobs, higher and the chance to rise as far a the path will take us, and that's why i'm running for the us senatei see a nevada of unlimated opp, a place of better jobs, higher and the chance to rise as far a the path will take us, and that's why i'm running for the us senate .

Heck's candidacy instantly makes Nevada one of next year's most important Senate battlegrounds—potentially, the race that might determine who controls the Senate when the next president takes office.

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And more than any campaign except the race for the White House, Heck and Nevada will also test Republicans' ability to win Hispanic-heavy states when turnout skyrockets during a presidential election year.

According to projections by David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, Nevada will have the highest share of Latino voters of any 2016 battleground state: more than one-fifth of the electorate. Meanwhile, the GOP has long struggled with Latinos, never more so that in the last presidential election. And since then, the party at large has basically ignored its own leaders' recommendations to court Hispanic voters more persistently, including by giving many immigrants who came to the country illegally the chance to become citizens.

But Heck has shown uncommon popularity with Latinos in winning three Las Vegas-area congressional elections, thanks in part to his moderate tone toward immigration reform. On the bigger stage of a marquee Senate race, Heck will have to fend off questions about his own voting record that Democrats are already promising to ask. The bigger challenge, however, might be separating himself from a national party that has shown a consistent penchant for alienating the voters he needs—especially as its presidential primary begins to heat up.

"Could there be another Donald Trump rage against Latinos?" asked Chris Roman, the president and CEO of the Spanish-language MundoFOX station in Las Vegas. "Will there be a 47-percent-won't-vote-for me moment? Anything Republican candidates say or do could somehow cloud his efforts."

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Republicans have a strong recent track record in Nevada, having easily won back-to-back gubernatorial elections while their down-ballot candidates swept to victories last year. In 2012, Republican Sen. Dean Heller defeated Rep. Shelley Berkley.

But Hispanic voters don't influence midterm elections the way they do presidential-year races. Even in Heller's 2012 victory, he carried less than 46 percent of the vote, running barely ahead of Mitt Romney as an ethics investigation bogged Berkley down. Heck faces a stronger opponent and the weight of history. Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada's former attorney general and the presumptive Democratic nominee, is trying to become the country's first Latina senator.

Democrats don't expect Reid's handpicked successor to campaign explicitly on her ethnic heritage. They also know she doesn't have to for it to be a major part of the campaign.

"When it comes to the Latino base, it is extremely excited to know that history could be in the works," said Nelson Araujo, a Democratic assemblyman from Las Vegas. "That we could elect the first Latina to the Senate."

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To overcome that, Heck will have to scale up the strategy that's kept his House seat safe. Heck fended off challenges in 2012 and 2014, supporters say, because of dogged outreach to the Hispanic community. He has met frequently with immigration-advocacy groups and Spanish-language media long before the 2012 election alerted Republicans to the necessity of such outreach. (In fact, Heck's was one of the voices urging the party to do more after Romney's loss.)

Aides to Heck's campaign estimate, that outreach helped him win roughly 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2014, a figure that far outpaces that of most Republican candidates and is what GOP strategists say is close to a realistic goal for his Senate campaign.

Roman recalls meeting Heck for the first time, in 2006, when the Republican was a state senator and Roman ran a Univision TV station in Las Vegas. Heck showed up alone, ready to talk policy and politics.

"He was the first Republican with whom I had a long conversation," Roman said. "I was surprised that the depth of knowledge that he had about Latinos, not just in Nevada, but throughout the U.S. The guy had done his homework, and you could tell he wasn't cramming."

Democrats think Heck's House victories are mostly the product of strong Republican years and poor opponents. But privately, they acknowledge that Heck's outreach and relative popularity within the Hispanic community is real—and concerning.

"It's kind of like this bring-it-on attitude at this point," said one Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race. "I think he is very secure in his profile and what people can attack him on, and I think it's going to make him tough to beat. He's very confident."

Democrats believe they can lean on some pressure points in Heck's voting record to undo that appeal to Hispanic voters. In those instances, he looks like a politician caught between the competing priorities of his own party, eager to appeal to an expanding electorate but also wary of angering conservative supporters who have sharply opposed any effort to change the country's policy toward undocumented immigrants.

Heck backs a pathway to citizenship, for example, but he also wants to pass legislation that increases border security first. Many immigration-reform advocates want to enact those policies in tandem, and Heck opposed the 2013 Senate bill that would have done just that. While Heck doesn't currently support repealing President Obama's executive order to halt deportations of undocumented immigrants' children, he did vote to defund the program before it had been implemented. And although Heck tried to introduce his own version of the Dream Act—which would make such children eligible for U.S. citizenship if they earned a college degree or served in the military—he has also endorsed a debate over revoking birthright citizenship of "anchor babies."

"The way you look at what Joe Heck has done on immigration is, he's done enough to say he's talked about the issue, but he's never put his money where his mouth is," said Yvonne Cancela, the political director for the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas, a powerful driver of Hispanic voter turnout in Nevada.

While Democrats think Heck's record provides more than enough ammunition to scare away Hispanic voters, the Republican's aides argue that, in totality, he's been more aligned with the Hispanic community's priorities on immigration reform than most Republicans. How those voters see things next November may decide which party controls the Senate afterward.