There is an under-noticed bright spot for the Republican Party after the recent midterm election: Gains with Hispanic voters and Hispanic politicians.

The numbers are deceptive at first glance. Overall, exit polls show that Hispanic voters nationwide broke a little less than 2-to-1 for Democratic candidates. But the details tell an interesting story. In fact, the numbers point to some opportunities for Republicans.

As several commentators have observed, the 2010 elections saw conservative Hispanics break through to win major offices in New Mexico, Florida and Nevada. Until this year, a conservative Hispanic in public office was likely to be a Cuban-American. In the Congress now stumbling toward its lame-duck finale, four Hispanic Republicans served time – three House members and their fellow Floridian, Sen. Mel Martinez, who retired in August of 2009. All are of Cuban descent.

Onn November 3, the number of Hispanic Republican major officeholders had risen by 150 percent. Of much greater significance, three of those Hispanics were elected to statewide offices, two of them as first-time Hispanic governors of recently blue states. Most important, their ranks include both Mexican-American and Puerto Rican conservatives.

New Mexico governor-elect Susana Martinez may present the most compelling example. As Luisita Lopez Torregrosa writes for Politics Daily, Martinez was expected to get 30 percent of the Hispanic vote in her state, which would have been an elevated total for a Republican there. Instead, she over-performed and earned 38 percent of the Hispanic vote against her Democratic opponent. Martinez is emblematic of the Tea Party movement in that she is a fiscal conservative who is also pro-life and unabashedly opposed to same-sex marriage.

So, too, is Marco Rubio of Florida, a fresh face whose meteoric rise on the national scene came against considerable odds – forcing a popular incumbent governor in the GOP primary to drop out, then winning a three-way race against that same man and a Democratic congressman in the general election. Rubio, who is of Cuban-American ancestry, blends a message of opportunity, family, and integrity that unnerves national Democrats to the point that they sent in Bill Clinton in a last-ditch effort to save the day.

The argument that 10 Hispanic office-holders do not a revolution make might have some force if the deeper lesson of November 2 is lost on GOP leaders. The Hispanic vote did not migrate to these pace-setting Republicans because the party’s stale “ethnic outreach strategy” finally hit its stride. The new conservative Hispanic governors, senator, and members of Congress won their races on substantive grounds. It’s the belief systems of the new Hispanic conservatives that broke down barriers and borders.

Consider Raul Labrador, who came from 20 points behind to defeat incumbent Walt Minnick in Idaho. That victory is especially impressive given Minnick’s blue dog record as an opponent of the TARP bailout legislation and votes against the $800 billion stimulus bill and Obamacare. Consider Quico Canseco as well, who prevailed in a close contest with a popular Democratic veteran, Ciro Rodriguez, in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District around San Antonio. No House district has a longer continuous border with Mexico. The symbolism should not be lost on anyone, but the symbol matters less than the fact that Canseco’s credo combines economic virtues with traditional values that align with the moral and family sense of most Hispanic-Americans. Rodriguez voted for the stimulus and for Obamacare, much to the chagrin of pro-life voters in his district.

More troubling for Democrats still: In Texas’s 27th Congressional District (which includes Corpus Christi and Brownsville), 28-year incumbent Democrat Solomon Ortiz looks to be losing the recount against Republican challenger Blake Farenthold, in a heavily Hispanic district no less.

The Democrats had their bright spots with Hispanic voters on November 2, particularly in Nevada where it seems likely that Sharron Angle, whose campaign ran a particularly stark anti-illegal-immigration ad on the eve of the election, lost enough Hispanic votes to account for 90 percent of her margin of defeat. But the warning signs are there even in the bright spots. Brian Sandoval became the first Hispanic governor of Nevada on a more moderate platform than Angle’s on immigration (and, to be fair, more liberal views on abortion), trouncing Harry Reid’s handpicked biological successor, his son Rory.

The same holds true in California, where Barbara Boxer won going away, though with diminished Hispanic support. In her two previous Senate campaigns, in 1998 and 2004, Boxer carried 72 percent and 73 percent of the state’s Hispanic voters, respectively. Against Carly Fiorina, her margin of victory among Hispanic voters was cut by a quarter – clearly not enough to turn the tide, but more than just foam on the water. Fiorina was helped by a first-time – and certainly not the last – effort by the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, which mobilized California Hispanics using messages similar to those that lifted winners like Susana Martinez and Raul Labrador.

The results on November 2 were not quite a tsunami for Republicans when it comes to the Hispanic vote, but a wave is certainly building. If Republican leaders are wise, they will increase that growing momentum with Hispanics by relying on substance over symbolism.

Frank Cannon is president of the American Principles Project.

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