News Column

Too Close to Call

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With the two 'I's – Iraq and immigration – the bellwether issues, next month's congressional elections are shaping up as a watershed event for both a number of Hispanic candidates and for Hispanic voters in key districts.

"I've never seen it this well for Democrats," says Rep. Hilda Solís (D-CA), who is part of a Democratic Party recruitment team that campaigns for candidates and helps raise money. "People are more motivated to vote this year than any other time I've seen and it's because they think what is happening in Iraq is ridiculous. They don't like it and they want it to stop, and they see that Congress is not doing anything on immigration."

Adds House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA): "We're prepared to win. We're ready to govern and to do it in a respectful, bipartisan way. From the war in Iraq, to skyrocketing gas prices and a soaring federal deficit, it's clear our nation needs a new direction. American voters are prepared to send our country in that direction by voting for Democrats."

Naturally, Republicans disagree, saying that Hispanics, like any other group, do not necessarily vote on just one issue. "Republicans and Latinos have many concerns in common. It is a challenging national environment, (but) we are confident that our local strategy of building each race from the ground up will allow us to bring back the majority in the next Congress," says Alejandro Burgos of the National Republican Campaign Committee.

But analysts say those two 'I's could change the scenery to the benefit of Democrats who, as the party not in the White House, traditionally do well in the midterm elections.

For starters, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House of Representatives, is spending more than $50 million for television and radio ads leading up to the November 7 elections, targeting races where Republican incumbents are considered vulnerable. The expenditures include $2.1 million for ads targeting Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), who is in a race labeled "too close to call" against state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat. If elected, Ms. Madrid would be the first female Hispanic to represent New Mexico in Congress. The state has not had a Hispanic federal legislator since Bill Richardson – now the state's high-profile governor – left to join the Clinton administration.

Republicans are also spending lots on the Wilson race (and others around the country). That Ms. Madrid, who has never run for Congress, is giving a three-term incumbent a run for her money is "quite an accomplishment," says Magdaleno Manzanárez, political science professor at Western New Mexico University.

"One of the hardest political races to do is run against someone who has already been in office for some time, but Madrid has managed to do that and more. She has raised a lot of money and has gained a lot of attention and support."

The left-leaning Web site Daily Kos says that Ms. Madrid is "poised for a pickup" and "may have been the single best recruitment coup for the DCCC this cycle," while the polling firm Lake Research Partners puts the race in a virtual dead-heat.

The Wilson/Madrid match is on the radar screens of other partisans, including Moveon.org. That liberal political action committee has sponsored ads on the sides of buses that run near Congress and the K Street lobbying corridor in the nation's capital, attacking certain members of Congress for their support of President Bush. One ad targets Ms. Wilson, an Air Force veteran, for not only supporting President Bush but also taking large amounts of money from the oil industry.

Ms. Madrid told Hispanic Business that she is focusing not only on being the state's top law enforcement official and a native New Mexican Hispanic, but is pushing her opponent's ties to President Bush. President Bush has been described as the elephant in the room this year by analysts who view the crisis in Iraq as the GOP's biggest obstacle in keeping the majority in both houses of Congress.

The war has been playing prominently in another key race, that of Democratic Senator Robert Menéndez of New Jersey, who was appointed last January by Governor Jon Corzine to complete the last year of Corzine's Senate term. Pitted against Mr. Menéndez is Republican state Senator Tom Kean, Jr., the son of a popular former governor. While both candidates agreed on many issues, they part ways on Iraq, with Mr. Kean saying he would have voted to authorize the war in Iraq. In contrast, Mr. Menéndez, one of only three Hispanic U.S. senators, has said that one of the most important votes of his political career came in 2002 against authorizing a war in Iraq.

A majority of the state's voters oppose the war. A recent poll by Farleigh Dickinson University found Mr. Menéndez and Mr. Kean running neck-and-neck, but the numbers for Mr. Menéndez skyrocket with the "mere mention" of Iraq. More than half of the respondents said their views on the Senate election were "very strongly" influenced by national issues, such as Iraq, and that with Iraq in the equation Mr. Menéndez takes an eight-point advantage, 44 percent to 36 percent, over Mr. Kean.

"There's been a lot of talk about Bush and Iraq being a drag on Republican congressional candidates," says FDU survey analyst Dan Cassino. "If people are thinking about Iraq when they go to the polls, Kean is in deep trouble. The Menéndez strategy has been to link his opponent to the unpopular president."

Still, Mr. Cassino adds, the incumbent's association with Governor Corzine, who has had a bumpy ride as a new governor, might tarnish Mr. Menéndez.

When the race started, Mr. Menéndez was little known outside of his congressional district despite having been chair of the House Democratic Caucus, but analysts say that had worked to his advantage in the early stages of the race. "New Jersey is a Democratic state more fed up with the Bush administration and the war in Iraq than it is with high taxes and the budget crisis at home," says Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Mr. Menéndez has been raising more money than Mr. Kean has and the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call has the state "leaning Democratic."

In Colorado, freshman Democrat John Salazar – mindful that his district voted 6 percent more Republican than the nation as a whole – has carved out a niche in the House by voting moderate to conservative on several issues, according to an analysis by the Washington-based Cook Political Report. Mr. Salazar was an early target of the GOP since he won in 2004 with barely 51 percent of the vote, but the Army veteran is viewed as appealing enough to both the conservative and more liberal voters in his district. He has far outpaced his opponent, Republican Scott Tipton, in fundraising.

The Supreme Court last June played a key role in another Hispanic-held district, opening the door to a challenge by a former Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair. Seven-term Republican Henry Bonilla (R-TX) represents a district that the nation's high court ruled had been unconstitutionally redrawn in 2004. In a move engineered by now disgraced former House Majority leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), the district was recrafted by moving 100,000 Hispanics to an adjoining district, presumably making Mr. Bonilla's seat safer. The court said that violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act – the only district in the DeLay effort actually voided.

El Paso teacher Ed Bolanos and former Rep. Ciro Rodríguez are challenging Mr. Bonilla. Still, Republicans say they are not worried about keeping Mr. Bonilla's seat.

"The new 23rd District will allow Henry Bonilla to represent his childhood neighborhood and his mother in the next Congress. He has strong roots in the district, and his influential position as an Appropriations Subcommittee chairman has given him a lengthy record of accomplishments to take back to voters," says the NRCC's Mr. Burgos. "While Henry Bonilla has several million to spend to get his message out, Ciro Rodríguez faces the tall order of building a successful campaign in a short time. After initially saying he was withdrawing from the race for family and financial concerns, Mr. Rodríguez said that he was remaining after all. Republicans say his "flip flopping" will hurt him in November.

"Ciro Rodríguez is so desperate to return to Congress that he's oblivious to the fact that his fellow Democratic voters have already rejected him twice in the last years," said Mr. Burgos. Mr. Rodríguez lost to now-Rep. Henry Cuéllar (D-TX) in 2004 in a hotly contested race where allegations of fraud were tossed about, and then later lost a rematch. Democratic analysts nonetheless believe that the national souring on Iraq and what they say is an anti-incumbency wave against Republicans will help them, and Mr. Rodríguez in particular, catch up in fundraising.

In many districts without Hispanic candidates but with large Hispanic populations, both parties are chasing the elusive but traditionally Democratic-leaning demographic. For example, Rep. Richard Pombo is a conservative Republican who represents a moderate district in the Central Valley of California. While there is small challenge from write-in candidate Dina Padilla, Democrat Jerry McNerney poses a threat – and his wife, Mary, is of Mexican-American descent in a 30 percent Hispanic district. The district was already a leaner – President Bush won that part of the state by just 3 percentage points in 2004 – and Mr. Pombo has been dogged by his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Mr. DeLay. Plus, Mr. Pombo was the only member of Congress from the region last December to vote for a House immigration bill that has been criticized as being too harsh on immigrants.

"Immigration will most definitely play a role in the elections this year," says Michelle Waslin, immigration policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza. "There are legislators out there who people know are not serious about passing a comprehensive immigration reform, even though that's what the president wants and what most Americans want. The American public is very smart and they will take notice of those who aren't doing anything about the issue."

One race where immigration is a significant factor is Arizona's 8th Congressional District, which stretches from Tucson to the Mexican border. It's 20 percent Hispanic, but it also sees more than its share of illegal border crossings and one of the first homes for the anti-immigrant group The Minutemen. Republican Jim Kolbe, a moderate, is vacating his seat after 22 years, and while a Democrat has not represented the district since 1984, several polls show it leaning Democratic, although others say it's a "complete toss up."

Hispanic voters could also be power brokers in Colorado's 4th District, where incumbent Republican Marilyn Musgrave is facing a significant challenge from Democrat Angie Paccione. They are running neck-and-neck in a district with a 14 percent Hispanic population. Also in Colorado, the 7th District, represented by vacating incumbent Republican Bob Beauprez, is trending Democratic. Mr. Beauprez won the seat by only 121 votes, and Hispanics make up close to 13 percent of the district's population.

Analysts are also looking at tight House races in Arizona, where Republican J.D. Hayworth is in a 15 percent Hispanic district, and in Nevada, where Republican John Porter is in a 13 percent Hispanic district. They are also keeping an eye on Republican incumbents in Connecticut – Nancy Johnson (8 percent Hispanics in her district) and Chris Shays (20 percent) – and south Florida – Clay Shaw (nearly 40 percent).

Amid all the talk of tight races, several Democratic Hispanics in the House are running without any major party opposition: Californians Xavier Becerra and Ms. Solís, and Texans Charlie González and Silvestre Reyes.

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