Backed by prominent Hispanic leaders, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley on Monday launched "Latinos for Shelley" to drive Hispanic voter turnout and boost her odds of defeating U.S. Sen. Dean Heller.
The Democrat will need Latinos to help her get out of the vote against Heller, a popular Republican who has stronger support in rural and Northern Nevada where the former congressman is from.
"Yes," Berkley said firmly when asked if she were counting on a strong Hispanic vote to win.
She is not the only one. President Barack Obama, too, will need to wrap up most of the Latino vote in Nevada, as he did four years ago, to win the state for a second time and a second term.
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., credited Hispanics for his re-election in 2010. Latinos made up 15 percent of the Nevada electorate two years ago and voted largely for the Democrat.
In 2012, Latino voter turnout will be key again with some Hispanics unhappy with the economy and failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
On one issue that has become a rallying cry for Hispanics, Berkley backs the DREAM Act. It would give children of illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship if they attend college or serve in the military. Heller voted against it, saying it could give benefits to illegal immigrants that should go to U.S. citizens.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is working on a GOP version of the DREAM Act that would let young illegal immigrants stay in the United States to study but would stop short of offering citizenship.
Berkley called the Rubio proposal "insulting to the Latino community."
"It's the DREAM Act without the dream," Berkley said. "There's no path to citizenship. I mean there's a stark difference."
Heller's campaign said he hasn't taken a position on Rubio's idea because it's still being drafted. He refused to cede ground to Berkley, saying economic issues will sway all voters in November.
"Seven-term Congresswoman Shelley Berkley has voted for a national energy tax, a failed stimulus, a skyrocketing federal debt and bailouts for Detroit and Wall Street while Nevadans, especially the Hispanic community, still struggle with record-high unemployment," said Chandler Smith, a spokeswoman for Heller's campaign. "All Nevadans want a better life for their children and grandchildren, but the Berkley agenda is making things worse."
Berkley said Latinos would rather send her to the Senate than return Heller, whose party has been battling Obama on everything from health care reform and student aid to tax and immigration policy. "Why would you elect people with the same policies that got us into this economic mess in the first place?" Berkley asked. "I think the Latino community is wise enough to be able to make a good choice."
Berkley has long-standing ties with Hispanic leaders in Southern Nevada, including those who have backed her in her seven successful congressional runs. Several dozen Latino leaders have endorsed Berkley for Senate, representing a broad spectrum of Nevada - education, business, politics, community services and Spanish-language media.
They also include a few prominent Republicans such as Otto Merida, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce. He joined Berkley at Monday's kickoff with a dozen other Hispanics, including state Sens. Mo Denis and Ruben Kihuen and Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, all Democrats from Las Vegas, and Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics.
Merida noted that Heller has hired Hispanic outreach workers for his Senate campaign, but the Latino leader said the community felt neglected by him while he served in Congress. "I think it's a little bit too late," he said.