Washington's 2012 governor's race is expected to be an extremely close contest where two strong candidates and tight voter margins make swing groups more important than ever. Latinos, who emerged in the recent U.S. Census results as a growing segment of Washington's population, frequently remain hidden from state politics, but could be a determining vote for the governor's seat.
At 755,790 people, Latinos are Washington's largest and fastest growing minority, currently making up 11.2 percent of the state's population, according to the 2010 Census. Some counties are predominantly Latino, with Adams County at 58 percent Latino and Franklin at 50 percent. (By comparison, King County is 8 percent Latino.)
“There is a good Republican candidate this year, and we're in a period of a swing to the Republican camp,” said Matt Barreto, a professor of political science at the University of Washington. “However, Washington is predominantly Democratic. So, in the governor's race, which is likely to be close, small groups like Latinos will be important for candidates' support.”
In June, Gov. Chris Gregoire set the stage for a tight contest when she announced that she will not run for re-election next year, creating what is now a race between Congressman Jay Inslee (D) and Attorney General Rob McKenna (R).
According to Barreto, Latinos typically favor Democrats 3-to-1 over Republicans. He adds, however, that there is an ideological split among Latinos to consider. “They tend to identify as conservative, but the vote tends to be Democratic.”
The booming Latino population can be seen nationwide, as demonstrated by the recent Census. One area where this growth will have a big impact is in redistricting, the process where legislative and congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years in order to maintain maximum equality of representation under the one-person, one-vote principle. For Washington state and its increased population, that means a new 10th Congressional district, and in turn more clout on Capitol Hill, and a larger share of federal funding, much of which is distributed on the basis of demographic formulas.
Despite this rapid growth, Latino numbers don't necessarily translate to political representation. According to a 2009 report from the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, “only one in 50 [state] senators and two out of 97 House representatives are of Hispanic origin.” Latino representation has grown in some areas, like local school boards and city councils, but not at a pace to match their numbers overall.
Issues that frequently stand out in Latino communities include education, immigration, health care, and jobs. How these issues are approached in the governor's race will be critical to winning Latino votes.
“If you consider the fact that in 2004 the difference between Dino Rossi and Chris Gregoire was 134 votes, every vote is important,” said Randy Pepple, campaign manager for McKenna. “Especially any segment that constitutes 10 percent of the vote. How that breaks can be called definitive.”
In July, when Democrat Inslee announced his candidacy, his first stop was Yakima. Before relocating to Western Washington, the state congressman spent 20 years living and working in the Yakima area, where Latinos make up nearly half of all residents.
"Part of Jay's appeal is his background and his ability to relate to places outside the shadow of the Space Needle,” said Joby Shimomura, Inslee's campaign manager. “We're anticipating a very close and competitive race. Reaching out to the Latino community and engaging them is going to be key.”
According to the Republican side, Latinos are just as likely to vote republican as democrat. “Overall, Rob receives a very positive response in the Latino communities,” said Pepple, “in places like Pasco, Yakima, and Franklin counties, when he appears on Spanish radio. Part of it is they know his work on the gang and meth problems, his work on domestic violence issues, and human trafficking.”
While both parties try to pull support to their side for the 2012 race, the impression they make now will also be an investment for each party's future. For now, while Latinos make up 11.2 percent of Washington's overall population, they represent only about 5 percent of the state's eligible voters. These numbers break down because of two factors: citizenship and age.
Washington's Latino population is young. Unlike states with a long history of Hispanic immigration such as California and Arizona, the Pew Hispanic Center found that the median age of Latinos in Washington is 23, roughly half that of the white median of 40 years. This means more Latinos under voting age. Consider also that some of the Latino population are of voting age, but aren't U.S. citizens. According to the Pew report, only 42.7 percent of Latinos in the U.S. are eligible to vote, compared to 77.7 percent of whites.
“Latinos are not gonna break into politics overnight,” said Luis Moscoso. Moscoso is a state representative from a district that spans the King-Snohomish county line, and one of the few Latino politicians in Washington. “We'll reach a certain critical mass and then things will change,” he said.
Uriel Iñiguez, director of the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs, suggested that more of the effect of the growing Latino population in Washington will be felt five to 10 years from now, as the current bloc of Latinos in high school reaches voting age.
OneAmerica is a Washington state immigrant advocacy organization that has wide experience among various communities, including work on registering immigrant voters and providing education about the election process. Over two-and-half years, they registered 25,000 new immigrant voters statewide.
OneAmerica's Pramila Jayapal said, "My experience is that in general, the political process has not reached out to immigrant voters and they haven't been perceived as important to reach out to. What we've seen is that many immigrant voters feel disenfranchised because they don't know how the system works, or they don't feel like it serves them.”
According to Jayapal, former President George W. Bush did relatively well with Latino voters nationally, something that wasn't a huge surprise because his emphasis on faith and family resonated with them. However, she explains that most of the voters she works with are “at the bottom of the economic ladder,” and the Democratic Party tends to address their needs.
Moscoso is a big Inslee advocate, citing Inslee's Eastern Washington background. According to the Inslee campaign, he has personal relationships with business leaders, farm workers, and nonprofit leaders that serve the Latino community.
McKenna too, has recognition around the state from his time as attorney general. According to Pepple, he'll continue to visit churches, Hispanic chambers of commerce, Latino media, and even soccer rallies where he's been invited to speak.
“Critical to getting this vote is voter registration,” said Barreto at the UW. “Though the Latino population is large here, the number of registered voters is small.” According to Barreto, if candidates wanted to gain traction with the Latino community, they would also try to increase voter registration.
To activate this voting group, politicians will have to address a number of nuts and bolts barriers to participation common to all immigrant groups — including voter education and language barriers — as well as speaking to the issues that concern Latinos.
So, for now, the Latino vote remains a powerful, if slightly muted voice in Washington politics. Meditating on political participation, Moscoso says the biggest barrier to Latinos is “a lack of confidence in ourselves. We may be waiting around for the perfect elected leader, the perfect politician.”
With political maps around the country literally being redrawn because of Latinos, their voting power is undeniable. Here in Washington, the governor's race will provide a test as to whether Latinos vote in numbers that reflect their size, or if cultural, legal, and language hurdles continue to hide the voice of this emerging electorate.