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Why John McCain Lost the Latino Vote

Many Latinos are angry at Republicans for pushing for the criminalization and mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.
 
 
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PUEBLO, Colorado, Nov 7 -- Interstate 70 in western Colorado heads east towards Denver along the upper reaches of the Colorado River.

On a railroad track paralleling the highway, two orange and black locomotives of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe line haul a long train of hopper cars full of coal up a steep grade into the Rocky Mountains and across the Continental Divide to points east.

The river, not much wider here than a fly-fishing stream, meanders westward down the valley that it carved over millennia between red-rock mesas, bordered in early November with yellow-leaved cottonwood trees.

Broadening as it flows through the Grand Canyon, the Colorado is corralled by huge dams that provide water and electric power for Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, and irrigation for the thirsty farms of the Southwest and California.

By the time it crosses the border into Mexico and empties into the Gulf of California, the river is a mere trickle. Mexican wetlands and farms are drying up because of the reduced flow.

Mexico, for its part, has been more generous in sharing its resources, particularly its human ones, with its northern neighbor. Millions of workers, unable to make ends meet at home, have ranged northward for many decades to provide labor for the farms and cities of el Norte.

The state of Colorado has been a destination for a good part of them. The population of 4.86 million is 19.5 percent Hispanic, about a third more than the Hispanic share nationally.

Along with immigrants, Colorado is also home to many Hispanic families who have been here since before the United States was. U.S. Senator Ken Salazar and his brother, Representative John Salazar, come from a family that has lived in the area for 12 generations. A large part of the state had been part of Mexico, but was forcibly annexed by the United States in the 1840s.

In this year's presidential elections, the 19 percent of Colorado voters who are Latino voted 60 percent to 38 percent for Democrat Barack Obama. This support provided a critical boost to his 6.8 percent margin over Republican John McCain, which gave the Democrat the state's nine electoral votes. In 2004, George W. Bush won the state from John Kerry by 4.7 percent.

Nationally, Bush won some 40 percent of Latino voters in 2004. This year, the Republican share of the Latino vote dropped to 31 percent, while the Democratic ticket took 66 percent.

An influx of newly registered young voters is another factor widely credited with swinging the victory to the Democratic ticket. And the Democratic nominating convention was held in Denver, the state's capital and biggest city, which gave the candidates high visibility here.

Immigration is among the most important issues to many Latino citizens, according to polls. Even though Senator McCain was co-sponsor of a comprehensive immigration reform bill that died in Congress in 2006, he took a harder line on the issue during the campaign.

Many Latinos blame conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives, such as Tom Tancredo, who represents the Denver suburbs, for sinking the bill and pushing for criminalization and mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Raids by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, including one on a Colorado meatpacking plant, swept up U.S. citizens along with undocumented workers in their dragnet. Lydia DeLaRosa, a Latino community leader in Grand Junction, told the Washington Post: "Even Mexicans who were born here were put on a bus and taken away."

Heading south from Denver on Interstate 25, the pale gold grass on the undulating hills shows traces of green from the last rain. The Front Range of the Rocky Mountains thrusts up to the west and the Great Plains flatten out to the east.

Much of Colorado's Hispanic population is concentrated in the southern part of the state in communities like Pueblo, about 110 miles south of Denver.

A blue-collar town of a little more than 100,000 with an economy built around a steel mill, Pueblo includes a large Latino community -- 44.7 percent of the city -- with a long history here. Most in that community are native U.S. citizens, with only 3.7 percent foreign-born.

On election night, the Democrats' party is at Union Depot, an old brick railway station sandblasted and remodeled as commercial space. In a big room with a bar, everybody seems to be somebody else's cousin or high-school buddy, and they're all buying each other a beer and a shot. Hooting and hollering ensues each time a new blue state is announced on several big-screen projection TVs. When the election is called for Obama, the chants of "Yes we did" are deafening.

Mike Rodriguez is looking pretty happy. He works at the steel mill and is wearing a jacket with the logo of the United Steel Workers Union.

Since a long, bitter strike in the late 1990s, the workers at Rocky Mountain Steel Mills have gone through hard times, Rodriguez says. Layoffs reduced the workforce from 10,000 to 1,000. "We used to be owned by John D. Rockefeller, now we're owned by the Russians."

The steel market has been recovering, he says. "Our company is making more money than ever" because more domestic steel is being used in the U.S. "But there is going to be a downturn."

Virginia Rodriguez, Mike's wife, says her 80-year-old mother didn't get a valid absentee ballot, so she had to go down in person today to vote. "Una hora para votar" -- she switches into Spanish -- an hour to vote, and the ballot was so long.

"The Hispanic vote is very important here and they have truly come out," she says. Her daughter voted for the first time today. Seeing three generations of her family voting was "exciting for us".

One of the speakers tonight is Printis Dominguez, an organizer for Democracia USA, a Latino group sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce that registered voters and got out the vote in Pueblo's poor neighbourhoods. "I'm so proud of that work tonight," he says. Although the group is non-partisan, he believes over 80 percent of the people they reached voted for Obama.

At the Republican headquarters a few blocks away, the evening is subdued. No party officials are there, but Silver Salazar of Veterans for McCain is scheduled to speak tonight. A disabled Vietnam vet and lifelong Democrat, he's crossed over for the first time to back a Republican.

In the primaries, Salazar supported Hilary Clinton. But when Obama won, he had a meeting with some other Hispanic Democrats and they agreed on Obama: "He was wrong on the Iraq war, he was wrong on abortion, he was wrong on immigration, he was wrong on oil drilling."

"Hispanics have been Democrats and Catholics by tradition, out of respect for their ancestors," he says. In Pueblo, Democrats outnumber Republicans by about two to one.

A city official told Salazar that he was finally going to be able to vote Republican.

"Why?"

"My father passed away this year."

Why did Republicans take the heat for the failure of immigration reform?

"I have to blame it on the media," he smiles. "Senator McCain has more compassion."

The Obama win "is going to be a rude awakening to the Republican Party. They have to come out and reach out. They haven't done a good job in reaching out to anybody."

 
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