Commentary by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
WASHINGTON - GOP strategists are giddy over the new census figures, which show that, based on population shifts over the past decade, a substantial number of new congressional and state legislative seats will be carved out in Texas and other western and southwestern states. At the same time, the shift means that seats will be lost in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest. Not surprisingly, Republicans are ecstatic at the prospect of solidifying their hold on the House with new seats in GOP-leaning districts in Texas, Nevada, and Florida. But the conventional wisdom that the 2012 redistricting will lead to long-term GOP gains is a fallacy—and Nevada is the best example of why the right-wing talking heads are wrong.
Nevada’s population soared by more than 30 percent over the past decade—three times the growth rate of the U.S. population as a whole. George W. Bush won the state in 2000 and 2004, which led the pundits to place it squarely in the GOP column. The supposed redness of Nevada’s electorate was the major reason Republicans (and plenty of other people) believed that GOP senatorial candidate and Tea Party darling Sharron Angle had a real shot at unseating the embattled Senate Minority leader Harry Reid, despite her extremist, even wacky, views. The pundits were wrong. Reid won re-election by a comfortable margin, thanks to the overwhelming support of one group of voters: Latinos.
According to the new census figures, Latinos accounted for much of the U.S. population gain since 2000. They make up more than 10 percent of Nevada’s electorate, and over the next two years, their numbers will continue to grow. They backed Reid in part because of Angle’s hard-line policy positions and ugly remarks that depicted Latino immigrants as criminals and drags on the state’s recession-ravaged economy. Reid’s victory and the increase in the state’s Latino population numbers mean that Nevada is neither red nor blue. It’s a battleground state, up for grabs by whichever party and candidate will listen to this critically important voting bloc.
Latino voters in Colorado, Washington, and California are the reason the Senate stayed in Democratic hands in a GOP landslide year. Their voting strength is increasing in Florida and Texas as well. While the GOP did score victories by running Latino candidates in Florida (new U.S. Senator Marco Rubio), Nevada and New Mexico (where David Sandoval and Susana Martinez, respectively, were elected governor), there is no evidence that Latino voters outside Florida's conservative-leaning Cuban population are shifting to the GOP. (In fact, neither Sandoval nor Martinez carried the Latino vote in their states.) Despite their frustration over Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform and its torpedoing of the DREAM Act, Latino leaders have laid the blame almost entirely at Republicans' feet. Meanwhile, President Obama’s Latino support remains solid. GOP leaders and Tea Party activists have made it clear that they are as hostile as ever to immigration reform that guarantees a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers. That opposition is unlikely to change in the run-up to the 2012 elections.
Democrats have another backstop to counter any aggressive move by GOP-dominated legislatures in key states to gerrymander districts to help Republicans candidates: the Voting Rights Act. Despite a fierce, decades-long assault by conservatives, the act—designed to protect the rights of ethnic minorities— still covers virtually all nine states, mostly in the South, and portions of another half-dozen states around the country. In the past, civil rights groups have used the Voting Rights Act to file challenges to redistricting plans in Texas and elsewhere. As long as Obama remains in the White House, the Justice Department is certain to scrutinize—and, where appropriate, fight—redistricting plans that unfairly limit the voting power of people of color.
This does not mean that the Democrats are totally on safe ground for 2012. Even without the changing census numbers and redistricting threat, Republicans have shifted the political balance of power in the crucial battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Virginia and Iowa. These states now have Republican governors and GOP majorities in their legislatures—a marked contrast to 2008, when Obama carried them all to sweep into the White House. The projection is that these states will lose as many as six electoral votes to states that GOP presidential contender John McCain won in 2008. This could complicate the electoral arithmetic if Obama finds himself in a tight re-election race.
But again, these are just abstract numbers at this point in political time. Many variables will come into play between now and November 2012 that could render the political affiliation of who controls or doesn’t control a congressional district less important than the health of the economy, Obama’s accomplishments, voter attitudes and turnout. The shifting demographics are merely numerical bellwethers of America’s population, its increasing diversity, and the impact of that diversity on politics. The census change is not the harbinger of political doom for the Democrats that Republicans are hoping for.