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Turnout and vote of Hispanics possible keys in Senate race

Turn on a television and you’ll hear frightening tales of illegal immigrants sneaking across the border to steal our jobs and soak up benefits that should be reserved for citizens.

No reasonable person doubts illegal immigration is an important issue, but it’s also a complex one and not something that can be accurately reduced to sound bites and sepia tones. The alarming imagery is being manipulated for all it’s worth in Campaign 2010.

In Nevada’s race for U.S. Senate, Hispanic voters are being courted and condemned simultaneously. On one hand, their motivated participation could help salvage Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s political career in his tight race against Republican challenger and unofficial Border Patrol guard Sharron Angle. (This makes the dangerous assumption that Hispanic voters aren’t also angry about the economy and itching for change.)

On the other side of the fence, Angle has taken the hardest of hard-line approaches. Her commercials call Reid the "illegal alien’s best friend," and she has been criticized for falsely claiming he favors giving them Social Security benefits. Although her candidacy has received relatively few endorsements from Nevada Republicans, she has expressed great pride in the support she has received from the immigrant’s worst enemy, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arizona passed a law enabling law enforcement to request proof of citizenship from people detained on other legal matters as simple as a traffic ticket. Angle supports the law.

While civil liberties experts are outraged, 57 percent of Nevada residents would approve of such a law, according to a June statewide survey. And 54 percent say they believe illegals are taking jobs. Surely Nevada’s high unemployment rate has only exacerbated that belief.

When Reid came out in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, it was a clear sign he was focusing on courting Hispanic voters. Team Reid might have lost the edge with independent voters, but its Hispanic strategy holds the potential of motivating a substantial Hispanic voting bloc.

Given that, it was intriguing to see the Washington, D.C.-based group The Hispanic Institute reported registering 10,000 Hispanic voters in Nevada. Potentially, that’s more than enough votes to blow open a close election.

THI Chairman and President Gus West knows his way around the state, especially Southern Nevada, where he once worked as a city of Las Vegas management analyst before joining the U.S. Department of Commerce and starting his own government affairs operation. West, a native of Nicaragua, says THI was created in 2005 "as a reaction to what we perceived was the anti-Hispanic sentiment that is going on out there. Our primary work is looking at labor needs, immigrant labor needs, and we try to document economic contributions of Hispanics."

But, he admits, this was no public relations campaign.

"We wanted to really show this time what we could accomplish on the door to door, grass roots, down and dirty," West says of the voter registration drive. "We’re not involved in TV and radio. Other people do that stuff. We do the hard part, the non-sexy part. And we’ve been well received. There’s a lot of fear out there in the community, particularly a lot of scared Hispanic Nevadans. For years people have tried to suppress the Hispanic vote."

West notes that Hispanics have been disappointed in President Barack Obama. Democrats can’t count on monolithic support.

"I think that Hispanics helped put Obama in office," he says. "Now his administration has arrested more Hispanics than previous administrations. It makes no sense."

Republican Party insiders I’ve spoken with remain confident voter outrage will overcome any Hispanic surprise by Democrats. Maybe they’re right.

But with voter registration ending Tuesday and early voting starting on Saturday, in any language 10,000 newly registered voters is nothing to sneeze at.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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