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Latino Republican walking a tightrope in Nevada race

For years, Brian Sandoval has been a rising Republican star, a trailblazer touted as a symbol of the party’s increasing diversity.

Square-jawed and handsome, he was elected Nevada’s first Latino attorney general, showcased at the 2004 Republican National Convention and appointed the state’s first Latino federal judge.

Now, as the GOP nominee for governor, Sandoval has come to symbolize something else: a tension within the Republican Party between efforts to attract Latinos and actions that repel members of the nation’s fastest-growing minority group.

Across the country, GOP candidates have vigorously supported Arizona’s tough new immigration law and, in some cases, gone further by supporting a rewrite of the Constitution to deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of those here illegally. (Sandoval opposes that effort.)

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The tough talk has rallied conservatives and drawn support from independents and even some Democrats frustrated with the current patchwork of state and federal immigration laws.

But the stance has also alienated Latinos who feel they are once again being scapegoated by a party with a history of harsh rhetoric and a penchant for backing policies — making English the official language, denying public services to illegal immigrants — that many consider punitive.

“It’s always the same thing,” said Victor Chicas, 43, a Las Vegas restaurant worker and naturalized citizen, who came nearly 20 years ago from El Salvador. “Blame the immigrants.”

When Sandoval, 47, left the bench last year and launched his gubernatorial bid, Otto Merida was an avid supporter. A Republican and head of the Las Vegas-based Latin Chamber of Commerce, Merida even wrote Sandoval a $500 check.

But Merida has since switched his allegiance, embracing Sandoval’s Democratic opponent, Rory Reid. The reason: the Arizona law.

Battling for the GOP nomination, Sandoval endorsed the measure and came out against driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants as part of a rightward shift that left Merida and other Latinos angry and confused. Reid opposes the law, which requires police to determine the status of people they stop and suspect are illegal immigrants.

“People are using this issue just to get votes,” said Merida, who emphasized that he was speaking personally and not for the chamber. “They’re dividing this country and creating friction at a time we need to be more united than ever.”

Sandoval said some interpret the law differently than he does. “I see it as Arizona’s effort to get its arms around a very extreme public safety problem and the inability of the federal government to secure the borders,” he said.

“I’ve been very straightforward with everybody in this state with regard to my positions,” Sandoval said, shrugging off the anger among some Latinos. “If I’m fortunate to be elected, I’ll continue to work with the Hispanic community.”

The political stakes are considerable, not just in Nevada but throughout the country. From 2000 to 2008, Latino registration grew 54% nationally and turnout rose 64%, according to America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group.

The concentration of Latino voters, who have trended more Democratic over the last several years, is also significant. Several states, including Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, have grown more competitive in presidential elections as the Latino population swelled. Texas, now solidly Republican, is expected to join that list over the next few years.

In the short-term, a hard line on immigration can be good politics. Sandoval knocked off a sitting governor in the GOP primary, the first time that happened in Nevada. (It helped that incumbent Jim Gibbons was greatly weakened by personal scandal.) Sandoval is a strong favorite to win in November. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican whose reelection chances had been considered iffy, cruised to her party’s nomination after signing the Arizona bill into law. She, too, is favored in November.

“Short-term it’s an obvious benefit because the vast majority in the country favor doing something,” said Matthew Dowd, President Bush’s chief strategist in his 2004 reelection campaign. “In their mind, the federal government has abdicated its responsibility on immigration and proven incompetent.”

But Dowd, who has worked for years to broaden the GOP appeal to Latinos, worries about the longer-term consequences. “It could feed that already existing perception that Hispanics have of Republicans, that they’re intolerant and insensitive,” Dowd said.

The textbook case is California’s Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that sought to deny public education and other benefits to illegal immigrants and helped boost Gov. Pete Wilson to reelection. A majority of Latinos initially supported the initiative. However, by the end of an angry campaign, more than 3 in 4 Latinos voted against the initiative, which was approved but later found unconstitutional.

More significantly, Latinos were politically energized as never before. Voter registration soared and their antagonism toward the GOP helped make California one of the most Democratic states in the country.

“I’ve always said Pete Wilson did more for our cause of getting Latinos to naturalize and vote than all of our efforts in the political-engagement world combined,” said Arturo Vargas, head of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Some reject comparisons to Proposition 187, saying Democrats have their own problem with Latinos after promising and failing to deliver comprehensive immigration reform. An Associated Press-Univision poll released last month found just 43% of Latinos surveyed felt President Obama had adequately addressed their needs. (His 57% approval rating, however, was much better than among other groups.)

“Right now, the Republicans are being more negative than they should be,” said Lionel Sosa, a GOP strategist in San Antonio. “But the Democrats are just sitting on their butts.”

Here in Nevada, strategists for both parties see the Latino vote as crucial in the governor’s race as well as in the contest between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Rory’s father, and Republican Sharron Angle, a former state legislator. Latinos are about 12% of the electorate.

Sandoval has taken to the Spanish-language airwaves to trumpet the historic nature of his candidacy. Otherwise, he says, his message is the same wherever he goes. “Latino voters have the same concerns as all the other voters in our state,” he said. “They’re concerned about education, they’re concerned about working and jobs and diversifying our economy.”

But some Latinos can’t get past Sandoval’s support for the Arizona law, which they say unfairly targets those with brown skin. (Sandoval said he would not try to enact such a law in Nevada because police tell him it is not needed.)

He compounded the upset with an off-air comment during an Univision interview, reportedly stating his children wouldn’t be stopped by Arizona police because they “don’t look Hispanic.”

Sandoval says he does not recall making the remark, which was not broadcast, but nevertheless expressed his regrets. By then, however, the damage was done.

“A Latino person like that comes to get our vote? Why?” said Manny Barajas, 59, a waiter on the Las Vegas Strip. “As soon as he says that, to me he is dead.”

Chicas, the server at a casino steakhouse, was more measured but no less adamant: “What we need is results, for someone to say, ‘Here’s a problem. How can we solve it?’ Not to blame a specific group or race.”

He plans to vote for Rory Reid.

mark.barabak@latimes.com


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