Monday, April 23, 2012

Roundhouse Roundup: The Ethnicity Card

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
April 22, 2012

After a full year of running for Senate, Hector Balderas still finds himself well behind Democratic primary opponent Martin Heinrich in terms of polls and fundraising in the race for U.S. Senate. What does Balderas need to do to finally break out?
Hector Balderas

There’s not a dime’s worth of difference — to use an old George Wallace saying — between Balderas and Heinrich on most of the issues. It’s safe to say that either would be a reliable Democratic vote in the Senate.

The typical underdog response would be to “go negative” against his opponent. Find some questionable vote or quote by Heinrich, blow it insanely out of proportion and run attack ads portraying Heinrich as a dangerous lunatic or traitor to the Democratic cause. It’s an old trick, but sometimes it works.

But something tells me Balderas won’t go that route. For one thing, Republican Senate contender Heather Wilson has a united Republican Party behind her in the GOP primary. (Her only challenger is longshot Greg Sowards, who has never won an election.) If Heinrich does win the primary, Balderas wouldn’t want to be known as someone who launched attacks that ended up helping Wilson win a Senate seat.

But Balderas might have found a way to distinguish himself from Heinrich and tap into a natural Democratic constituency — without scorching the earth. Let’s call it the Ethnicity Card.

We saw it first on Twitter last week. Balderas and his supporters began tweeting about how the Hispanic population is under-represented. The tweets linked to a new Web page called “Hispanics for Balderas.”

There, in a section called “Hector’s Message to Young Hispanics,” he points out economic disparity between Hispanics and the general population, saying, “Now imagine of the difference we could make by electing more Hispanic leaders — people from your community who can fight to make sure we close these gaps.”

Martin Heinrich
Hispanic leaders like, say, Hector Balderas?

Elsewhere on the page, Balderas says, “There are 50.5 million Hispanics living in the United States today. Yet just 7 Hispanic Americans have ever been elected to the United States Senate in our nation’s history.”

The implication: This won’t change if we send Heinrich to the Senate.

“Think of the impact one Hispanic person can have just by running for office,” Balderas says on the page. “While we’ve made a lot of progress on equality in this country — the struggle is still far from over. On many fronts, we’ve stalled.”

Will this strategy be enough to ensure Balderas’ campaign doesn’t stall?

The question of ethnicity in the Senate race has been discussed ever since last year when Bingaman announced he wouldn’t run again. Early in the game, some supporters pointed out that New Mexico hasn’t had a Hispanic senator since Joe Montoya left office in the 1970s.

Pollster Brian Sanderoff told me in April 2011, “The vast majority of Hispanics are Democrats. The Hispanic vote is a high proportion of the votes cast in the Democratic primary.” New Mexico voters tend to vote for candidates of their own ethnicity, he said.

However, Sanderoff said in high-profile races, that’s less true. The more voters learn about the issues and the candidates, Sanderoff said, the more they cast votes based on issues and the candidates’ likeability. But since there’s no real difference on the issues in this case, Sanderoff said Tuesday that it makes sense Balderas would “play up things in his personal background” that set him apart from Heinrich.

“Typically you try to identify a group that’s persuadable,” Sanderoff said. “It’s a perfectly good strategy.”

In a few weeks we’ll know how good it was.