Is Sandoval Losing Hispanic Voters?

Some supporters think the gubernatorial hopeful is taking them for granted

Hispanic voters wanted to love Brian Sandoval, the Republican who would be the state’s first Hispanic governor. But it’s starting to seem like he’s doing his best to turn them off.

This was vividly illustrated by the recent controversy over a stunningly insensitive remark Sandoval supposedly made at the Univision television studio. It’s not at all clear whether Sandoval actually uttered the comment in question, but the accusation has reverberated widely in Nevada’s Hispanic community.

According to a column Univision’s news director, Adriana Arévalo, wrote for the Spanish-language newspaper El Tiempo in July, Sandoval was asked how he would feel if his children were stopped by the police and asked for proof that they were in the country legally. “He answered, with a note of pride in his voice, ‘My children don’t look Hispanic,’” Arévalo wrote.

The supposed exchange never aired on television. In the uproar that followed, it emerged that the alleged comment was made to an anchor who interviewed Sandoval and not to Arévalo, and the video of the comment that the station possessed didn’t include any sound. Univision nevertheless stood behind Arévalo’s claim, while Sandoval, who had initially denied making the statement, equivocated, saying he couldn’t remember having said it but certainly didn’t mean it if he had. “I am proud of my heritage and my family,” he said.

For Nevada Hispanics, the issue brought home growing doubts about whether Sandoval deserves their votes. It was not the first time he appeared all too willing to alienate the Hispanic community.

During the Republican primary campaign, Sandoval, facing a challenge from the right, came out in support of Arizona’s restrictive anti-illegal immigration law—the one that critics say would result in Hispanic-looking children getting asked for their papers. The move shocked and dismayed Hispanic activists who had been excited about Sandoval’s historic run.

“I have known Brian Sandoval for many years and supported his candidacy,” Otto Merida, the Republican head of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce, said at the time, in a statement in support of Sandoval’s Democratic opponent, Rory Reid. Merida said he was “disheartened when Brian Sandoval turned his back on the Hispanic community and spoke out in favor of the recent Arizona immigration legislation.”

Like Merida, Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, supported Republican John McCain for president in 2008. He is a Democrat, but his nonpartisan organization endorsed Republican Jim Gibbons in the 2006 gubernatorial race. Like Merida, Romero had hoped to vote for Sandoval, but changed his mind: “When I saw what he said [about the Arizona law], there was no turning back,” he said.

Romero understood that Sandoval probably believed he had to act tough on immigration to placate right-wing Republican primary voters. But Sandoval could have finessed the issue, as Republican Hispanic candidates in other states have done, instead of coming out fully in support of the Arizona law.

The Hispanic community, Romero said, saw the move as arrogance on Sandoval’s part—taking Hispanic voters for granted.

Sandoval’s campaign says it has not ignored Hispanic voters: A Spanish-language ad that aired during the World Cup was his first television commercial of the general election. Reid’s camp points out that that’s the only time it aired, calling it a “publicity stunt.” Sandoval’s campaign plans to bring the ad back eventually, advisers say, but is not currently airing any TV ads, in English or Spanish.

Reid, who trails in the polls, has moved aggressively to cut into Sandoval’s built-in edge with Hispanics. Reid came out strongly against the Arizona law the day it passed, with a statement that said, “This ill-conceived law opens the door to racial profiling and the violation of the fundamental civil rights of all Americans.”

His campaign never tires of pointing out that Reid, who was as a Mormon missionary in Argentina, speaks Spanish, while Sandoval, whose mother and father were born in Mexico, does not. On Aug. 9, Reid began airing an ad that featured him speaking in Spanish. Supporters saw it as a terrific showcase of his linguistic abilities; opponents saw an awkward-looking white guy with a schoolboy accent, shamelessly pandering.

In Nevada and elsewhere, Hispanics are a growing swing group. In 2006, 37 percent of Nevada Hispanics voted for Gibbons, one of the highest proportions of the Hispanic vote won by a Republican nationwide, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In 2008, Hispanics were 15 percent of the Nevada electorate, and they swung the other way, voting overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, according to exit polling.

If Sandoval continues to lead Reid by double digits, as he has so far, the Hispanic vote won’t be enough to turn the tide. But if the contest between Sandoval and Reid becomes closer, as most involved in the campaign expect, the difference between a good and bad showing with Hispanics could mean a crucial point or two in the overall vote tally. Hispanic voters respond strongly to Hispanic candidates, studies show, but Reid hopes they can be swayed.

Whether or not Sandoval ever made the disputed remark about his kids, it continues to resonate in the Hispanic community because it cements the suspicion that he doesn’t care about their votes, Romero says. But there’s another problem with the supposed insult, he notes.

“The night of the primary, Sandoval’s family was gathered around him at the podium,” Romero recalls. “I’m looking at them, and his boy looks like my 12-year-old who, obviously, looks Hispanic.”

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