Progressives and liberals cling to the expectation that Republican antagonism of Hispanics will lead to electoral disaster. This was ever-present during the confirmation fight over Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Now the predictions of GOP doom are back. This time Republicans are slitting their own throats by using the health-care-for-illegal-immigrants lie to reignite the anti-immigrant (anti-Hispanic) hysteria in The Base. This is suicide to alienate the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority, and it will be especially lethal for Republicans in the Southwest, with its huge Hispanic population. That, at least, is the view from Washington, D.C. The reality can be summed up in two words.
The Italian-American sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, anchored by the nation's fifth-largest city, Arpaio waged a vicious campaign against illegals ahead of last fall's election. Egged on by talk-radio haters, the "sweeps" were part of a notorious climate of antagonism against all Hispanics, even Mexican-Americans who have been in the country for generations. Arpaio didn't go after the Anglo Republicans who employed the illegals. He arrested the weak, the vulnerable, the already exploited. Maricopa County is at least one-third Hispanic citizens who might object to this racist atmosphere. Risky, no? And it should be added that the incumbent was lacking in many ways that informed citizens of ethnic groups should have found deserving of a swift kick to the door. Arpaio was re-elected by a landslide -- and the sweeps mostly stopped, having served their purpose for a publicity seeking hotdog many other cops call "The Badged Ego."
Arpaio knows the reality of Arizona and many other places. To put it into the quaint local lexicon, it boils down to this: "Mexicans don't vote."
No wonder John McCain could flip-flop on immigration reform, while Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn of Texas could vote against Sotomayor. They know who does vote: the older white person who gets most of his or her information from Fox News or talk radio, if at all. In Phoenix, it's the Sun City or Gilbert phenomenon. People in the white suburbs vote -- and they vote for anyone who goes after those people. It is those people, after all, who are responsible for everything bad in the lives of these aggrieved, frightened white suburbanites. They were terrified a few years ago when 100,000 Hispanics marched through downtown Phoenix demanding reform, flexing potentially game-changing political muscle. A veteran Hispanic politician told me at the time, "We'll see. Will they (the marchers) vote in November?" They didn't.
Yes, exceptions exist, such as the coalition that elected LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; political power among Puerto Ricans in New York and Cubans in Miami are long-standing. For decades, the west side of San Antonio and Rio Grande Valley represented blocks of voters for sale to Democratic politicians, often controlled by Anglo patrons. Hispanics are not monolithic. But in general, they lack the race consciousness and class consciousness that liberal observers hope for. Many are working poor, unlikely to vote without, as in the LA situation, unions to raise political awareness. In the Southwest, more than a few Mexican-Americans resented the recent, huge wave of immigrants. Some, rising to the middle class, vote Republican. There is no galvanizing leader or movement.
So while Hispanic citizens may feel empathy with illegal immigrants, they don't have the equivalent of the right-wing crazies. They don't constitute a game-changing electoral block yet. They may not for many years to come. As with so much else in this season of discontent, the right-wing did not do enough damage. I suspect they will get another chance, sooner than many believe.