Among the big Republican winners in Tuesday's election were three prominent Hispanics, who won two governorships and a senate race. But the overall Hispanic vote still favored Democrats and Republicans may have trouble making gains with this fast-growing segment of voters in future elections.
Tuesday was a big day for Hispanic Republicans, with Brian Sandoval winning the governorship of Nevada and Susana Martinez becoming the first woman governor of New Mexico and the first female Hispanic governor of any state. She celebrated that victory in Las Cruces, New Mexico Tuesday night.
"Tonight we have made history. Together we have taken a decisive step toward bringing bold change to New Mexico," she said.
Martinez won in a state that has trended towards Democrats in recent elections partly by riding the wave of discontent with Democrats that led to GOP victories nationwide. Party leaders hope her Hispanic name and background will help them recruit more Hispanics in the years ahead.
They have similar hopes for another rising Hispanic star, Marco Rubio, who celebrated his senate victory in Florida Tuesday with a nod to his upbringing in the Cuban exile community. "I know America is great not because I read it in a book, but because I have seen it with my eyes. I have been raised in a community of exiles, of people who lost their country, of people who know what it is like to live somewhere else. By the way, it is a community that I am proud to be a part of," he said.
Many observers believe Hispanic Republican stars like Martinez and Rubio could help remind Latino voters of values they share with conservatives. Mark Jones, Chairman of the Political Science Department at Rice University says only one issue stands in the way of Republican gains with Hispanics.
"If we take the immigration issue out, more Hispanics identify with some policies of the Republican Party than with the Democratic Party, in terms of family values, the role of the family in general, issues of gay rights and abortion. You have many Hispanic business owners who are also not wild about large government regulation," he said.
But Jones says Republicans will have a hard time modifying their stance on immigration reform because many of the people elected to Congress Tuesday are hardcore conservatives who believe in strict enforcement of immigration laws and who oppose any move that would amount to an amnesty for those who entered the country illegally.
"They want their version of immigration reform, which is cracking down heavily on undocumented workers here in the United States or nothing. They are going to be very tough to bring over. Likewise, the Democratic Party is unlikely to do the Republicans, such as John Boehner, any favors by lending a hand to ally with moderate Republicans to support compromise legislation," he said.
Recent public opinion polls show that immigration is also an issue that divides Hispanics to some extent, with older, more established voters being less supportive of reform than many younger people or people who recently immigrated to the United States. Opinions on the issue are also stronger among Mexican-Americans than with Latinos from other areas like Cubans and Puerto Ricans.
But Hispanics have reacted negatively to what they perceive as an anti-immigrant attitude among Republicans. Exit polls Tuesday showed around 66 percent of Hispanic voters favored Democrats.
But while Hispanics now represent around 16 percent of the US population, their turnout in Tuesday's midterm election was around eight percent. This reflects a low-voter-turnout trend among Hispanics seen in previous elections as well. But Mark Jones says the power of the Hispanic vote will increase in years ahead as the population grows and younger people enter the voter ranks.
"It is going to be a slow, gradual change as, first, Hispanic children reach the age of 18 and above and then those children actually vote because we know that you cannot vote if you are under age 18, but then the 18-to-25 range also votes very infrequently. So it is going to be a long process," he said.
Jones says, in the 2012 presidential election, Hispanic votes will have the most impact in the southwestern states and in some cities like Chicago where there are large Hispanic communities. But he says the ethnic group's influence nationwide will surely grow in the decades to come as the population expands and the children of immigrants become active voters.