Jerry Lewis, the Republican who rose to fame by defeating Russell Pearce two years ago, lost his Senate seat in 2012 partly because his crossover appeal to Latinos did not translate into votes for him, an analysis of the results of the November elections showed.
The irony of Lewis’s re-election campaign appears to be that the Republican who espoused a nuanced, humane and moderate stance on illegal immigration was ultimately weighed down by the GOP’s overall lack of popularity among Hispanics. Lewis was soundly defeated by Democrat Ed Ableser of Tempe.
But some cautioned against drawing this conclusion, arguing that another way to interpret the data is that a Democratic district simply voted for the Democratic candidate. They also pointed that Lewis was fighting for survival in a traditionally Democratic stronghold.
Lewis was running for re-election in Legislative District 26, which has one of the highest concentrations of voting-age Latinos in the state. Polls showed that immigration is the issue Latinos care deeply about and is a predictor of how they vote.
For some, Lewis’ loss in a district covering much of Mesa and Tempe illustrates the malaise plaguing the Republican Party — its inability to attract Latino voters and break away from a perception that it is hostile to their interests.
When asked if the GOP brand ultimately didn’t help, Lewis didn’t hesitate. “Most definitely,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times.
“Certainly, I think the harsh tone of the platform of the Republican Party, especially on immigration, did not help me any,” he said.
Privately, some in his campaign had hoped Latinos would turn out in large numbers last November, surmising if they did, they would support him because he was viewed favorably by Latinos.
But even absent an exit poll showing whether Latinos supported Lewis, the data strongly suggested that this demographic toed the Democratic Party line rather than rallying to Lewis because of his views on immigration.
The final tally between Lewis and Ableser hewed strikingly close to the forecast of the Independent Redistricting Commission, which drew new legislative boundaries based on the 2010 U.S. Census. Ableser performed a little better than the IRC’s assumptions. His margin of victory over Lewis was 13.7 points while the IRC estimated that Democrats would hold a 13.2-point competitive edge in Legislative District 26.
Lewis also performed better than presidential candidate Mitt Romney or Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio did in the district. But to overcome the Democratic registration advantage, he would have had to lure a large number of Hispanic voters and peel away a substantial number of Democratic votes from other demographics. In the end, a joint analysis by the Arizona Capitol Times and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting shows that he made small but ultimately insufficient headways in prying away Latinos’ loyalty from the Democratic Party.
In the map below, precincts are colored from red (Ableser) to blue (Lewis) to show vote breakdown. Precincts outlined in yellow show where Hispanics make up more than 25 percent of the voting age population. Precincts with a heavier border show where Lewis performed better than the partisan registration. Click on individual precincts for vote and demographic details.
On Election Day, Ableser, who has represented his community in the Legislature for several years, won by a margin of
54 percent to 40 percent in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 6 percentage points. The IRC’s competitive advantage is based on results of previous elections; the more recent ones were weighted heavier and blowout races were excluded.
Lewis won the precincts closer to his home in west Mesa, a GOP stronghold, the Capitol Times’ analysis showed. The district also includes much of northern Tempe with its higher percentage of Democrats.
Many of the precincts he carried had a sizable Latino voting-age population. But in the main, when those precincts’ registration edge favored the GOP, voters didn’t cross the party line and instead chose their party’s candidate — Ableser. In other words, precincts behaved approximately the way they were expected to, despite Lewis’ efforts.
Some observers cautioned against using the LD26 race to draw an inference about the woes the party is facing in attracting Hispanic voters. They said the most likely indicator of who a voter will support is his party affiliation, and for a “typical legislative candidate,” that partisan divide is tough to overcome.
That’s particularly true in Tempe, which had generally favored Democrats, and where Lewis’s defeat of Pearce might not have been necessarily enough to sway a Hispanic who happens to be a Democrat to cross the party line.
An analysis of 17 precincts with a Hispanic Voting Age Population (HVAP) of at least 25 percent showed that on average, Lewis performed slightly better — by roughly 2 points — than his party’s registration.
But in three such precincts — Elwood, Dwight and Escalante, which are all overwhelmingly Democratic districts — Lewis performed below par. In Escalante, for example, where the HVAP is 32.1 percent, Lewis underperformed by nearly 7 points.
Data is unavailable about the exact turnout of Latino voters in the district and how many supported Lewis.
But exit polls showed that statewide,
76 percent of Latino voters in Arizona supported President Barack Obama. If an overwhelming number of Latino voters in LD26 supported Obama and then stuck with Democrats in local races, that helped explain why Lewis’ crossover appeal wasn’t sufficient to make a difference.
Dea Montague, who co-chaired his Senate re-election campaign, said Lewis had hoped to capitalize on the momentum from the 2011 recall election, when voters in old Legislative District 18 chose him over Pearce.
“[But] I think the Latino vote heavily favored President Obama and I think that the straight-ticket effect hurt Jerry,” Montague said, postulating that if it had been an off-general election year, Lewis might have performed better.
Lewis’ loss and the beating Republicans took nationally had spawned a deep introspection about the party’s direction. But many reject the assertion that the GOP has a problem attracting Latino voters, suggesting instead that changing the party’s tone and emphasis is sufficient to court Arizona’s fastest growing voting bloc.
Others argue that no amount of immigration reform would endear Latinos to the GOP, pointing out that Ronald Reagan’s 1986 “amnesty” for illegal immigrants didn’t translate into Latinos flocking to the Republican Party. Instead, they argued it is the party’s core values of limited government, free-market economy and individual responsibility that should make it ultimately attractive to Latinos and other groups.
Some also noted that Republicans have always had a rough time getting elected in Tempe, a Democratic stronghold that includes the Arizona State University. They added that Lewis wasn’t running against an unknown entity. Ableser had been solidly entrenched as member of the House of Representatives representing Tempe.
But for others, Obama’s winning 76 percent of the Latino vote in Arizona paints a sobering picture and reaffirms the challenge of turning around the trend.
Paul Whetten, chairman of the neighboring Legislative District 25 Republican Party, knows the problem from up close. Roughly one-fifth of his district, which includes the bulk of Mesa, is made up of Latinos, whose share of the voting-age population is 16 percent.
Like others, Whetten believes his party’s difficulties with Hispanics stem from its approach to confronting illegal immigration.
“Rightly or wrongly, they feel that a lot of the anger directed toward the illegal population is generated by racism. I do not believe that, but that is their perception,” he said.
In fact, many believe that Latinos should naturally gravitate toward the GOP.
Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said Latinos tend to be Roman Catholic or belong to another religious organization, which to him means they are socially conservative. On some issues, such as abortion, Latinos do hold a more conservative view than the general public according to the Latino Pew Research.
Yarbrough also said Latinos have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and are very patriotic and insisted that his party offers values that mesh with Latinos’ views on society and government.
“My goodness, if the Republican Party can’t appeal to those folks, then we really are in trouble,” he said.
The trouble for the GOP is plain enough: Democrats have been more successful in registering Latinos as voters. Nationally, about two-thirds of Latino registered voters already identify with the Democratic Party.
But GOP legislators need only look into their own ranks to appreciate the gravity of the issue: A fifth of the Legislature is made up of Latinos, but only two are Republicans — Rep. Steve Montenegro of Litchfield Park and Rep. T.J. Shope of Coolidge.
Many readily agree with another observation: attend any GOP district party meeting and one fact becomes apparent — the precinct committee members are mostly white and aging.
A.J. LaFaro, the newly-elected chairman of the Maricopa County Republican Party, strongly hinted the GOP must find a way to appeal to an increasingly diverse American public.
“The ‘We the People’ that our Founding Fathers were a part of is not the ‘We the People’ we have today,” LaFaro said, adding that many recognize that the GOP’s values hew close to theirs.
“We, as Republicans, need to improve our message immensely… and we need to hone that message with regards to what the Republican Party is about, the values that we have and be able to articulate those things that I feel they believe in also,” he said.
Latino influence expected to grow
Joseph Garcia, director of the Latino Public Policy Center at ASU’s Morrison Institute, was blunt in his assessment of GOP’s future if it cannot attract Latinos.
“There is no future without the Latino vote and the Republican Party knows this,” he said, adding, “This was probably the last election that you could win without the Latino vote, and we saw what you can do with the Latino vote — you can win.”
The test for the GOP is whether it realizes it must attract Latino voters through policy and legislation as opposed to cosmetic changes, such as softening the message, Garcia said.
That’s the big debate for the party faithful, he said.
Glimpses of that debate surfaced following a decision by U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jake Flake to introduce a framework for bipartisan illegal immigration legislation that included a path to citizenship.
Republicans praised or panned the proposal — or gave qualified support or criticism depending upon where they are on the political spectrum.
Reflecting views of the most conservative wing of the party, former state Sen. Ron Gould, the current chairman of the Mohave County Republican Party, said, “If McCain and Flake continue down this road, they are helping to destroy the Republican Party.”
Others have similar views. GOP activist Rob Haney said that in 1986, Republicans bought into the belief that once “amnesty” was granted, the border would be secured and further “amnesty programs” won’t happen.
“The point is either you’re a law-abiding society or you’re not, and if you’re not, then you’re anarchy, and that’s what we are living under now in a Democrat-Obama administration and aided by our own Republicans,” Haney said.
Still others, like Sen. Bob Worsley, the newly elected Republican from Mesa, are happy to see that Congress is revisiting the complex issue.
But what’s also palpable is that even as national Republicans appear to be carrying out a plan to compete for the Latino vote starting with getting the illegal immigration behind them, local Republicans appear unsure of their next move.
What everybody can agree on, however, is that the Latino influence on the ballot box will only grow.
A recent study from ASU’s Morrison Institute said Latinos’ influence won’t be fully felt for another 20 or 30 years, but the institute’s prediction doesn’t bode well for the GOP. Even if the current registration patterns hold, Latinos’ share of the adult population will increase to 25 percent from the current 15 percent by 2030, simply because the Latino population is growing much faster than that of other ethnic groups.
The study’s authors concluded that over time, the number of voters who identify as Republicans will fall until they roughly equal the number of Democrats, and then independents’ share will surpass both parties.
A November 2012 Arizona Capitol Times analysis also affirms the basic premise of the ASU study.
Using data from the U.S. Census, the analysis shows that every legislative district will see Latino growth outpace non-Latino growth. In some districts, the growth in the Latino voting age population — those who are at least 18 years old — will dwarf that of non-Latinos. And, in a few cases, the non-Hispanic voting age population could shrink while the Hispanic voting age population expands.
At the legislative level, this means that toss-up districts become safer for Democrats. As a result, some reliable Republican districts could become competitive. If Democrats’ wishes come true, and a handful of key districts become winnable for Democrats, the upshot is a Legislature where Republicans may not be in the majority.
LD26 will also see a notable increase of Latino voters — to 35 percent from the current 32 percent by 2020.
Without the Latino vote, Lewis said his party will continue to “erode.”
“The party will become less and less relevant,” he said.
An earlier version of this article said the only Republican and Latino member of the Legislature is Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park. In fact, Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, is also a Latino. Shope’s mother, a Latina, was born in Nogales, Mexico.