Inside the Doña Maria Tamales Mexican Restaurant in downtown Las Vegas, Vicenta Montoya on Wednesday outlined plans to get Hispanics to the polls for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the endangered Democratic incumbent.
She formed the Sí Se Puede Latino Democratic Caucus last year with the election push in mind.
"Make sure you use an accent on the word 'sí,' " Montoya said, explaining it changes the meaning in an important way. "Without the accent, it means 'if we can,' not 'yes we can.' "
It's a question central to Reid's re-election hopes: whether Democrats can come close to the 2008 presidential election turnout when a record seven in 10 registered Latinos voted in Nevada, three-quarters of them for Barack Obama.
Reid, who spoke at a breakfast in the restaurant to rally nearly 100 Latino leaders and activists, dismissed a new poll that suggests Hispanics nationwide are less enthusiastic this year compared with the rest of the electorate, especially Republicans upset with the current administration.
"Hispanics are turning out so much stronger than they have in the past," Reid told reporters after he took half a dozen questions from the friendly crowd. "So I see the glass as half full."
With Reid running neck and neck with his GOP challenger Sharron Angle in the polls, Hispanics, who make up 26 percent of the Nevada population and 12 percent of its 1 million registered voters, could make the difference between the four-term senator's victory or defeat on Nov. 2.
"We got our job cut out for us," acknowledged Fernando Romero, a Democrat and leader of Hispanics in Politics, which hosted the monthly breakfast where Reid spoke.
Activists said they registered 10,000 Hispanic voters this year in Nevada. In Clark County, where most Latinos live, they count more than 90,000 registered voters. Among them, roughly six in 10 are Democrats, two in 10 are Republicans, and the remaining two in 10 are nonpartisan or minor party members.
A Pew Hispanic poll out Tuesday found that 51 percent of Latino registered voters nationwide were absolutely certain they would vote compared with 70 percent of U.S. voters overall.
At the same time, only 26 percent of the Hispanic voters polled said Obama's policies have helped Latinos, while 13 percent said they have hurt and 51 percent said they have had no effect.
The mixed feelings could be the result of Obama's failure to deliver on his promise of comprehensive immigration reform. Reid, whose job includes enacting Obama's agenda, blames Republicans, who blocked what they labeled "amnesty" in a highly partisan year in which the GOP focused on strengthening border security instead.
Reid won approval in Congress of $600 million to boost border security after Arizona passed a controversial law that would give police greater authority to question suspected illegal immigrants. Angle has praised the law, while Reid said he supports the Obama administration's lawsuit challenging it.
In a last-minute pitch to fire up Hispanics, Reid tried to pass the Dream Act, which would have put young illegal immigrants on a path to U.S. citizenship if they finish college or join the U.S. military.
"Whether it was a political move or not, it's a move we appreciated," said Romero, who added that he wasn't sure the gesture was enough to boost Hispanic turnout. "It cannot hurt."
Hispanic activist Montoya is one of the leaders of the Latino get out the vote effort, including helping identify precinct captains to go door to door across the Las Vegas Valley. She said she's responsible for getting 300 registered voters to the polls in her Charleston Heights neighborhood, north of West Charleston Boulevard and roughly between Decatur Boulevard and Buffalo Drive.
Montoya is organizing in other areas of the city, too, including this weekend where she hopes to draw 60 to 80 people to walk a district in northeast downtown near the restaurant. They hope to knock on 1,200 to 1,500 doors, promoting Reid and other down-ticket Democrats.
"Latinos are everywhere," said Montoya, a woman of mixed American Indian and Spanish heritage, who said her Hispanic ancestors had been here for 500 years before the United States formed.
On Oct. 16, the day early voting begins, Democratic Hispanics plan to hold a fiesta at the East Las Vegas Community Center to urge people to go to the polls. Reid is invited. Angle is not.
"They can go and vote for whoever they want," Montoya said of the Hispanic crowd. "But, no, we would not invite Sharron Angle. I don't know that she would get a friendly reception. I think the ads she's running on immigration are appealing to people's fears. Latinos feel this hostility."
Angle has run a series of TV ads calling Reid the "best friend" of illegal aliens and criticizing his support for the Dream Act and immigration measures that could allow the 150,000 to 250,000 illegal immigrants in Nevada to seek U.S. citizenship without first having to return to their home countries.
The issue might resonate in Nevada with an estimated 130,000 undocumented workers and a record high 14.4 percent unemployment rate with some 200,000 people out of work.
A September poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow showed that more than half, or 54 percent, of likely Nevada voters believe illegal immigrants are taking away jobs from U.S. citizens. In agreement were 52 percent of nonpartisan voters, whom polls show are leaning toward Angle by double digits.
The Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey showed 66 percent of Republicans believe illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from the state's citizens. Democrats were divided, with 43 percent agreeing with that stance and 45 percent saying undocumented workers are mostly taking low-wage jobs Nevadans don't want. Only 28 percent of Hispanics believed illegal workers were taking Nevadans' jobs, while 61 percent said they were part of the low-wage work force and not competition.
On Wednesday, Reid called Angle's ads "totally false," and independent fact check organizations have criticized the Republican's TV commercials as well. Angle's latest ad focuses on the Dream Act and includes footage of what appear to be illegal immigrants walking along a fence and several young Latino men wearing gang-like garb.
"Harry Reid is fighting for a program that would give preferred college tuition rates to none other than illegal aliens," the ad narrator says.
The Angle campaign stood by the ads, providing backup material that noted some states could give lower in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrant students who would be covered by the Dream Act.
The ads also charge that Reid has voted to give illegal immigrants tax breaks and allow them to collect Social Security benefits. Calling foul, Reid's campaign points to a Senate resolution he sponsored several years ago that specifically would prohibit such benefits for illegal immigrants.
To back up its charge, the Angle campaign points to Reid votes on several proposed amendments to a comprehensive immigration reform bill that failed in 2006 amid bitter partisan fighting.
One amendment by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., for example, would have barred illegal immigrants who apply for legal status from collecting tax refunds or filing claims for the earned income tax credit or other tax benefits for the years prior to 2006. The May 25, 2006, amendment was adopted, 50-47, with Reid voting no in a largely party line vote, according to the vote cited by the Angle campaign.
Angle spokesman Jerry Stacy said Reid has failed Hispanics and other Americans by not doing enough to address the problem of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Asked about criticism the ads could be seen as xenophobic, Stacy responded with a reminder that Reid has made questionable comments about race and color.
Reid once privately said Obama could run for president because he was "light-skinned" and didn't have a "Negro dialect." More recently, Reid said he didn't understand how anyone could be both Hispanic and a Republican.
"It's Harry Reid who divides," Stacy said. "Whether it concerns skin color or dialects of somebody running for political office, or questioning the political affiliation of patriotic Hispanics, it's Harry Reid's very own comments, which prove that it is Harry Reid himself who is out of touch with the community."
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