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Latinos throw more support to Democrats

Times Staff Writers

Anger over anti-immigrant rhetoric helped fuel a shift in the Latino vote to Democrats, damaging Republican hopes of luring this fast-growing population into its fold, Latino activists and political analysts said Thursday.

The electoral defeat of several Republican immigration hawks, along with national polls that showed the Latino vote helped Democrats recapture Congress, was touted as proof that the community had delivered on its vast political promise.

“We are showing at the ballot box that we can translate our numbers into political power,” said Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles.

Latino and immigrant-rights groups had vowed to follow up massive rallies earlier this year with campaigns to register voters and mobilize them to reject anti-immigrant candidates. Although many of them fell far short of their fundraising goals, activists said that the immigration debate, along with the Iraq war and the economy, had particularly fired up immigrant and young Latino voters.

In a troubling trend for Republicans, most of those voters went for Democrats. Nationally, a CNN exit poll showed that Democratic House candidates won 69% of the Latino vote this week compared with 55% in 2004 (other polls show 58%). A Times exit poll showed that 61% of Latinos supported Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, compared with 33% who backed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Analysts said that Republican attempts to use immigration as a wedge issue to galvanize conservative voters backfired by instead rousing more Latinos to vote. Those results were particularly apparent in Arizona, “ground zero” of the immigration debate, where several Republican immigration hawks were defeated, analysts said.

"[Republicans] have done long-term permanent damage to their brand with this community,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the Washington, D.C.-based New Democrat Network.

Some Republican analysts gloomily agree.

“It isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political strategist in Los Angeles.

“You had these Republicans sounding mean.... It’s an angry tone that all American problems are because of illegal immigrants. There’s little doubt that when you go around acting as if you don’t like a group of people, they don’t vote for you. So Latinos stopped voting for Republicans.”

It was not clear, however, that immigration was the top priority for Latino voters. Several polls showed that education and the economy were more important.

In California, a Times exit poll did not find any significant surge of Latino voters. They made up about 12% of the electorate -- about the same proportion since 1998.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said 1.2 million California Latinos voted this week, an increase of 100,000 over the 2002 election. However, he said that fell short of the 1.5 million voters that his group had hoped for.

One problem, he said, was that his group only managed to raise one-fourth of the $1 million it wanted for voter registration. In addition, he said, there were few candidates or ballot measures that generated the excitement or controversy needed to drive higher turnouts.

The We Are America Alliance, a national coalition of religious, labor and immigrant rights groups, also fell short of fundraising goals, raising only about $500,000 of the $1.6 million targeted for voter mobilization, according to Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

But Salas and others said the pro-immigrant marches and rallies this year had energized record numbers of immigrants into volunteering for voter outreach and education programs.

On election day, for instance, Ethiopian immigrant Admasu Mekonnen and Mexico native Antonio Bernabe teamed up to knock on doors and remind people to vote in one South Los Angeles neighborhood. In sweltering heat, they encountered dogs, housekeepers, relatives -- but only a handful of voters at the 20 or so homes they visited.

That did not seem to discourage the pair, both noncitizen legal immigrants. After all, their work that day helped the immigrant rights coalition surpass its goal of contacting nearly 3,000 voters.

“We can’t vote, but we can walk,” said Bernabe, 46, who organizes day laborers for the immigration coalition. “This is not work. This is a mission.”

An exit poll released Thursday by several Los Angeles immigrant-rights groups found that 60% of immigrants surveyed said Democrats had done a better job on the immigration issue than Republicans. The poll of 1,200 voters at 30 Los Angeles voting sites was sponsored by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the Central American Resource Center and the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium.

Another poll of Asian, Latino and African American voters released Thursday by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California found widespread support for the legalization of undocumented immigrants across all communities.

Now that the Democrats control Congress, Salas said, many immigrants and their supporters expect immigration reform to become a top priority.

“Democrats have a huge opportunity to make good on the promise of comprehensive immigration reform, keeping in mind that many of those who brought them to power were the immigrants and their families,” Salas said.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Voter turnout

Who cast ballots in California governor’s elections, broken down by ethnicity:

*--* ’94 ’98 ’02 ’03* ’06 White 81% 64% 76% 73% 75% Black 5 13 4 5 6 Latino 8 13 10 11 12 Asian 4 8 6 6 3

*--*

*Recall election

Source: L.A. Times exit polls


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