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Can the growing California Latino voting population swing House races?

Former NASA Astronaut Jose Hernandez is running for Congress as a Democrat in a Central Valley district with a growing Latino population.
Former NASA Astronaut Jose Hernandez is running for Congress as a Democrat in a Central Valley district with a growing Latino population.

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Could the record number of eligible Latino voters tip the November election in some California Congressional races? Maybe.

Earlier this week, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that the number of Latinos who are eligible to vote has jumped 22 percent from 2008. That's got the attention of candidates at all levels.

Amid ads for the two Presidential candidates, you might stumble onto one for a Congressional race, funded by the Democratic House Majority PAC. In one instance, an ad depicts a star-filled sky above a farm field. The voiceover in Spanish says: "A boy from the valley saw the stars. He saw men go to the moon and dreamed. Jose Hernandez lived his dream."

Former astronaut Hernandez is trying to unseat freshman Republican Congressman Jeff Denham in the Central Valley. The district is split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, though pollsters say it leans Republican. The district has a growing number of Latino residents — 40 percent of the population vs 46 percent Anglo. 

But population doesn’t necessarily translate into ballots on election day.

Antonio Gonzales is president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. He says being an eligible voter doesn't guarantee participation: "You have to be registered in America. You have a figure, you divide by three." 

Only about a third of all Latinos are eligible to vote. Many are too young; others are not citizens. But Gonzales says the newly-drawn 10th House District in the Central Valley is one of two California Congressional races where a growing Latino population could influence the outcome. 

Money is one reason. 

According to a study commissioned by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, in California Congressional races Democrats are outspending Republicans on Spanish language TV ads by nearly 20 to one — most of it spent in the Central Valley.

Fernando Guerra, who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, says "Given the advertising rates, you do in a sense get more bang for your buck by advertising on Spanish-language TV." 

Guerra says Spanish-language ads are an important symbol — proof a candidate is reaching out to the Latino community.  But it’s also substantive, he says, even for voters who primarily speak English.  He says it’s not unusual for a Latino household to have multiple generations speaking multiple languages. "So you could have Spanish language TV on," Guerra notes, "and it could impact a second- or third-generation Latino voter because your mother or grandmother is listening to it, but then they speak about it later at the dinner table or in conversation."

Spanish-language TV ads are also running in the Palms Springs market, where a Democrat, emergency room physician Raul Ruiz, is trying to unseat the Republican incumbent, eight-term Congresswoman Mary Bono-Mack. The Southwest Voter Project's Gonzales calls Ruiz a very viable candidate with a good field operation. Here, the political party split is almost even. But the population is slightly more Latino than Anglo.

Over in the newly created 41st district in Riverside, there are more than twice as many Latinos as Anglos.  But Gonzales says Latinos aren’t likely to tip the scales in an election that features no incumbents and no Latino candidates. "The Latino vote is not quite ripe enough, I don’t think."

Two Republicans are facing off in the 31st district in San Bernadino — incumbent Gary Miller and challenger Bob Dutton.  Latinos in the district outnumber Anglos by about five to three.  Again, Gonzales doesn’t expect much impact from Latino voters. "You don’t really have infrastructure there." By infrastructure, he means registration drives, get-out-the-vote efforts, and community presence.  

Loyola Marymount’s Guerra says reaching out to voters is key, with targeted mailings that speak to Latino voters, as well as face-to-face contact with candidates. That’s true in any election.  But Guerra says the closer a House race is, the greater the chance that Latino voters can indeed determine the outcome. "If the race is going to be close, within one percent," Guerra says, "Latino turnout could provide that one percent."

It’s still five weeks until election day.  Five more weeks of ads, knocking on doors, and political mailers.  Five weeks until we know for sure whether Latino voters will have the strength to swing California House races.