Mr. Reyneri says he has created a program of leadership summits and training seminars to develop candidates. According to Mr. Reyneri, "This year's [Democratic National] Convention has more Latino delegates than ever before, more than 500, and more Latinos appointed to committees than ever before."
NALEO's Mr. Gonzalez sees Hispanic candidates making great progress in mastering two political skills – broadening their message and fund-raising.
"How do you move from being the Hispanic candidate to the representative for the entire constituency?" he asks. "In California, that's not a problem any more. But when you're in Georgia, New Hampshire, or North Carolina, that's important." Mr. Gonzalez believes candidate training has improved Hispanics' ability to "move beyond the ethnic label," allowing them to garner votes even in districts with small Hispanic electorates.
Traditionally, funding campaigns has presented a larger problem for minorities than non-minorities, in part because of the incumbency advantage, Mr. Gonzalez says. Hispanic CEOs tended to support incumbents regardless of ethnicity, making it difficult for Hispanic challengers to collect money. However, maturation on both the business and political sides has improved the outlook.
"It's fair to say there's more willingness on the business side now," says Mr. Gonzalez. "We often heard that the problem with Latino politicians was they only talked about immigration and bilingual education. Where were access to capital and other business issues? In the more traditional areas of Texas and California, that has changed."
On the political side, office holders also now devote more energy to business development. In addition, Hispanic legislators have formed coalitions and caucuses that can tip the vote on certain legislation, attracting the attention of lobbyists and advocacy groups.
In this election, both parties put forward viable candidates in races designed to capture the first Hispanic U.S. Senate seat since one was held by Joseph Montoya of New Mexico in 1977.
This year, Republicans looked to Florida, where former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez faced a tough primary August 31 against former Congressman Bill McCollum. According to a Mason-Dixon poll in July, Mr. McCollum had 29 percent of Republican votes and Mr. Martinez had 24 percent – a difference right at the poll's 5-percent margin of error.
Democrats pinned their Senate hopes on Ken Salazar, attorney general in Colorado. Although the state leans Republican, Mr. Salazar's record of bipartisanship – including cordial relations with Governor Bill Owens and a long-term friendship with retiring Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former Democrat – worked in his favor. Mr. Salazar has experience as a rancher, entrepreneur, and water attorney. However, he faced stiff competition from Republican brewing heir Peter Coors.
At the congressional level, Democratic Hispanic front-runners include John Salazar (Ken's brother) in Colorado's open Third District, Richard Romero challenging Heather Wilson in New Mexico's First District, and Amy Vasquez trying to unseat Christopher Smith in New Jersey's Fourth District.
Republicans have Tim Escobar seeking to replace Linda Sanchez in California's 39th District. According to Mr. Gonzalez, Ms. Sanchez won in 2002 with only 54 percent of the vote, but "it's Sanchez's [race] to lose as the incumbent."
Mr. Villarreal says 11 Hispanic Republicans will run for Congress this year, many recruited from Hispanic chambers of commerce.
"It's important we have equal representation in both parties," he says. "I don't have any ill will against Hispanics in the Democratic Party, because they have their convictions. But it's important we participate. If we could harness the Latino people and vote, we could win elections all over the map."
Still, while the pipeline continues to expand, Mr. Gonzalez doesn't see Hispanics achieving full representation in the political system for at least a decade or more.
Besides numerous financial and organizational obstacles in running for office, the profession itself presents diminishing opportunities.
"This is not necessarily a banner year for either party supporting viable [Hispanic] candidates," Mr. Gonzalez says. "That's not an indictment against the parties – it's about incumbency. Every year, the number of competitive races dwindles. By now there are usually about 10 districts, if you're lucky, that are competitive."
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