Where Nevada's Hispanic voters are concerned, Democrats are betting Sharron Angle is the gift that keeps on giving.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a national political action committee dedicated to keeping a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, is running a Spanish-language radio ad in Las Vegas this week that refers to "the party of Sharron Angle" and calls Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller "another Sharron Angle" running on an "anti-Latina" platform.
Heller is being challenged by Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley.
"Sharron Angle is a new shorthand," said Gary Segura, a Stanford University political scientist and principal for the polling firm Latino Decisions. "There have been others in the past like Gov. Pete Wilson of California. ... It's hard to say all these things about a candidate's positions, so to sum up the whole package of 'anti-immigrant,' they just say 'Sharron Angle.'"
Nevada is considered by pollsters as one of a handful of states where Hispanic voters will be crucial in statewide elections, and Hispanics make up 14 percent of the electorate in the Silver State. Polls show Heller and Berkley running neck and neck.
Reaching out to Hispanic voters via radio advertisements isn't the sole domain of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, though. Its GOP counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has hit Spanish-language radio with ads supportive of Heller.
Many political strategists, and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid himself, credit Reid's victory over Angle in 2010 to his strong showing among Latino voters, pulling in 90 percent of that group.
Angle was heavily criticized during that campaign for what were seen as race-baiting tactics, including commercials that linked Reid to illegal immigration and included a series of images of menacing-looking Hispanics sneaking through a chain-link fence.
Angle's showing among Hispanic voters was particularly poor for Republicans in Nevada. Gov. Brian Sandoval took 33 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2010, and John McCain captured 20 percent of those voters in his 2008 presidential bid.
The Berkley campaign and Democratic Party organizations have made an early push to lock down Hispanic voters. In November, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Spanish-language ad chided Heller for his "lack of respect for the Hispanic Community" after his last-minute cancellation of an appearance at the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce. The Berkley website features a petition titled "Tell Dean Heller: Stop Insulting Nevada Hispanics" that the campaign says has received more than 3,700 signatures as of Tuesday.
The latest Spanish-language advertisement, which is endorsed by Berkley, draws a direct line between Angle and Heller.
"Heller has said that he opposes the Dream Act, closing doors to so many young people in the only country they know," a woman's voice says in Spanish. "A Republican that wants to get to the Senate on an anti-Latina platform -- does that sound familiar? In the Republican Dean Heller we have another Sharron Angle."
Earlier this month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee produced a series of radio spots criticizing female legislators for supporting the federal health care law requirement that employers offer birth control among free preventive care covered in health insurance plans. Churches are exempt from having to insure contraception, but social service agencies, hospitals and universities run by religious organizations that employ people of other faiths must provide the coverage. Opponents of the requirement, including Heller, said it trampled on religious freedom as institutions may be forced to contribute to the cost of contraception, something against the beliefs of some religious groups.
In Nevada, the ad, which was not endorsed by any candidate, ran on the radio in Spanish and targeted Berkley and President Barack Obama. In Wisconsin, virtually the same radio ad aired, but in English and focusing on Obama and U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. In Nevada, the ad refers to the "Obama-Berkley" law, while the Wisconsin version calls it the "Obama-Baldwin" law.
"Obama and Berkley want to force the Catholic Church and Americans of faith to abandon their religious dogma, obligating the church to pay for medical procedures and drugs that go against their beliefs," a woman says in Spanish. "And if the church doesn't obey? The Obama-Berkley law sanctions them, forcing them to pay fines for doing simply what they think is right. It is a direct attack against religious freedom."
National Republican Senatorial Committee Communication Director Brian Walsh framed the race, and the ad, in terms of personal freedom and government intervention.
"On virtually every issue, when there's been a clear choice between bigger government and personal freedom, Shelley Berkley has consistently stood with President Obama on the side of bigger government and more regulation, and the Congresswoman will be held accountable for her very liberal record in Washington," Walsh wrote in an email.
According to Latino Decisions, which casts itself as an independent polling firm, the Democrats' tactic may carry more punch than the Republicans' approach.
"There is virtually no indication that any Latin voter will turn out to vote on the contraception issue," Segura said. "The Catholic Church has been opposed to abortion for forever and the Democrats have run pro-choice candidates forever, and that has not stopped Latinos from voting for them. If abortion was not sufficient to sway them, why on earth would the pill or condoms be sufficient? It makes no sense."
On the other hand, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad hits on two issues that polls show Hispanic voters think are important, education and immigration.
"Who is their candidate now? Dean Heller, the Republican who wants to copy the anti-immigrant Arizona law here in Nevada, who voted to cut funds to Head Start and student scholarships, who is against immigration reform, and would deport grandparents and separate children from their mothers," the ad states, referring in part to a vote by Heller to reduce federal Pell Grant benefits for college students.
Jim Gonzalez, a Las Vegas resident who is a member of Somos Republicans, one of the largest Hispanic conservative groups in the country, said he has not yet decided which Senate candidate he'll support.
"I do see the contraception issue as one of religious freedom," said Gonzalez, who describes himself as an Evangelical Christian. "I won't vote for Obama, but he did all right in backing off and suggesting a compromise on that issue. I think the contraception thing will not last as an issue, but immigration will be an issue for the long run. I want sensible immigration reform, and if the Democrat is the one who offers that in the Senate race, that's who I'll vote for. I'm going to wait and see."
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