When Sen. Harry Reid took the stage to revel in his reelection triumph, hundreds of sign-waving supporters chanted, “Si, se puede!”
The Spanish mantra of “Yes we can” was appropriate for the Democratic majority leader, long considered among the nation’s most vulnerable incumbents. Reid won Tuesday partly because of his strength among Latinos and other minorities, many of whom were motivated by Republican Sharron Angle’s racially charged rhetoric.
“Yes we did,” responded an ebullient Reid, who seized two-thirds of Latino votes and an even larger share of black and Asian ballots, according to exit polls. Meanwhile, Angle trounced Reid among white voters by a double-digit margin.
Reid’s success with minorities is a microcosm of how he handily clinched victory, winning 50% to 44%. A flurry of mailers and commercials helped demonize Angle as outside the mainstream. A string of high-profile surrogates, including President Obama, bolstered Reid’s standing with key groups.
A ground game that Reid bragged was superior to some presidential campaigns pushed voters to the polls.
Angle failed to help herself with incendiary talk that gambled on minorities not showing up in force. Her close ties to the “tea party” movement, which has been criticized as racially exclusionary, turned off voters such as Kandyce Douglas.
“I’m not doing anything that could support, or have anything to do with, the tea party,” said Douglas, who is African American. “Have you heard what that woman has been saying?”
Immigration became a key undercurrent in Reid’s bid for a fifth term when Arizona’s tough measure to control illegal immigration was signed into law in April. Nevada’s nation-leading unemployment rate fed into some voters’ perception that undocumented migrants were draining social services and pilfering jobs.
Angle tried to capitalize on the sentiment with ads featuring thuggish-looking Latino men and the claim that Reid was “the best friend an illegal alien ever had.” Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, called the ads “borderline racist.”
Early in the campaign, some analysts predicted sluggish turnout among Latinos disappointed with Democrats’ failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Angle’s border-crackdown rhetoric, however, spurred Latinos to the polls, much like anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 did in California years ago.
“There, like here in Nevada, you have a Latino population that’s not engaged in politics — until there’s this outside threat. Angle was that threat,” said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In the campaign’s final weeks, a video surfaced of Angle telling Latino students that some of them looked “a little more Asian.” Her aim, her campaign said, was to promote tolerance by showing that people can’t be judged by appearance. But the video generally wasn’t received that way.
The clip “was like rubbing salt in the wound,” said political scientist Kenneth Fernandez of UNLV.
Along the way, Reid suffered his own stumbles. In 2008, he described Obama as a “light-skinned” African American who could turn his “Negro dialect” on and off. But Reid was able to slough off those and other remarks as misstatements, partly because he’d worked hard to win favor with minorities.
For months, Democrats slammed Angle on the economy, education and healthcare — issues that superseded immigration for many Latinos, said Reid advisor Rebecca Lambe. Instead of simply translating English ads, Reid’s camp produced original Spanish-language pitches aimed at first- and second-generation Latinos, she said.
On Wednesday, Reid celebrated that approach’s success. Over the years, he told reporters, he was mocked for building ties with “a group that doesn’t register and, if they’re registered, they don’t vote.” But this week, he said, Latinos “really flexed their muscles. Why? Because they felt they were not being treated properly.”