DENVER (AP) – President Barack Obama’s declining popularity has inspired Republicans as they court potential Latino votes in Colorado, a swing state where joblessness disproportionately hurts the fastest-growing demographic.
“Republicans see a tremendous opportunity,” said Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call.
In 2008, Colorado was a toss-up state — along with Nevada, New Mexico and Florida — where Latino support helped sway the election in Obama’s favor. But as the economy tumbled, the average annual unemployment rate rose to 13.2 percent for Latinos in Colorado last year, according to the state labor department. Overall it was 8.7 percent.
“These numbers are a strong and powerful indictment of the failed policies of Barack Obama,” said Call, adding that he thinks Latinos are disillusioned with the president. “They’re not only warming to the Republican Party, they’re coming to the Republican Party.”
That remains to be seen. But the Republican National Committee began airing Spanish-language ads in Colorado over the summer, hoping to capitalize on polling showing support for Obama slipping among Latinos. The second interview Call did after becoming GOP state chair was in Spanish for a radio station.
“You’re going to see a lot more of me, and not just me, but other party leaders engaging Spanish-language media,” Call said. He said his party will encourage Latinos to attend February precinct caucus to help shape the Republican platform and will engage the Hispanic business community.
However, Call conceded “there is room for improvement” in the party’s Latino outreach. “And that’s what we are doing right now.”
Obama, meanwhile, is also making strong overtures to Latino voters here, choosing a high school in a predominantly Latino Denver neighborhood to promote his jobs plan on Tuesday. It was, effectively, his first Colorado presidential campaign stop of the election cycle.
Denver Councilman Paul Lopez, whose district neighbors the high school Obama visited, said the locale was fitting because he was talking to an audience that will be important in 2012.
“These students may very well become voters by then,” Lopez said.
Lopez argues that Republicans have turned away Latino voters with their fervent anti-immigration policies.
“They know that they’ve lost the Latino vote and it’s almost unsalvageable,” he said.
Some Latinos support Obama but acknowledge he has not done as much as they hoped with either the economy or immigration.
Manuel Pina, 59, who held a “Unify Families” sign near the high school where Obama spoke, said he wants the government to make more visas available so his three grown daughters can leave violent Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and come to Denver. He said he thinks Republicans have prevented the president from making sweeping immigration policy changes.
“I feel very satisfied,” Pina said in Spanish. “And I’ll vote for him again.”
But Obama has lost Latino enthusiasm, according to a recent Gallup survey. It found that 48 percent of Hispanic voters approved of Obama’s job performance, compared with 60 percent in January.
Both parties realize Latinos are crucial in close elections.
In a tight 2010 U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Ken Buck, Bennet won in part because of overwhelming support from Latinos.
When Obama was elected in 2008, about 6 in 10 Latino voters in Colorado supported him, according to Associated Press exit polls. Latinos were 13 percent of the state electorate in 2008, compared to 8 percent in 2004.
And their potential influence is increasing.
About the 20 percent of the state’s population is Latino, compared to 17 percent in 2000. Hispanics grew faster than any other group in Colorado during the last decade, according to Census figures. Latinos accounted for more than half of the country’s growth since 2000.
“With numbers come political power,” Obama said Wednesday, during a Hispanic roundtable streamed on the White House website.
He was responding to a question about whether the country was ready for a Latino president or vice president.
“Now, the challenge I think politically for Latinos across the country is, are folks registering, are they voting. And we still have not seen the kinds of participation levels that are necessary to match up the numbers with actual political power.”
Obama organizers in Colorado are already mobilizing in places like Greeley, where more than a third of the population is Latino, to make sure people are registered to vote.
They’re also starting up phone banks to talk about how Obama’s jobs bill would benefit Latinos. Organizers are telling Latinos that they’ll benefit from new health care legislation and emphasize new immigration guidelines from the administration that focus on deporting illegal immigrants who are criminals or pose a threat to national security or public safety, potentially allowing those without criminal records to stay.
Ryan Mahoney, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said GOP officials are developing state-specific outreach plans for Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida and will have staff dedicated to engage Latino voters.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)