WASHINGTON — Six Hispanic candidates are running for Congress in California as Republicans, a symbol of hope for a party that has struggled with an anti-immigrant image.
Few expect these Republicans to win in congressional districts in which Hispanics may be a majority but registered Democrats easily outnumber Republicans.
Some Democratic Hispanics dismiss the candidates as window-dressing for a party still trying to recover from Proposition 187, a 1994 initiative that sought to bar most state services to illegal immigrants. The measure was pushed by then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and passed.
“Why don’t we see Republicans supporting Hispanics in races where they really have a shot to win?” said Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who faces Republican Jeff Chavez in the race for her Orange County congressional seat. “The answer is they don’t really want Hispanics to win. They’re not giving them the support, the dollars, the machinery.”
Still, as Republicans try to shake off the lingering effects of Proposition 187, they are looking to candidates whose mere presence on the ballot is a part of the GOP’s attempt to be more inclusive.
The issue is critically important in California, where Hispanics are expected to be the largest population group within 20 years. Hispanics have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats since the mid-1990s.
In California, where four Hispanic Republicans serve in the state Legislature, 14 Hispanic candidates are running as Republicans for Congress, the state Legislature and insurance commissioner.
Nationwide, the Republican National Committee has identified 93 Hispanic Republicans who are not incumbents seeking local, state and congressional seats. RNC spokeswoman Sharon Castillo said the list may be not be complete, and she could not provide numbers for past elections.
There also are 125 elected Hispanic Republicans at all levels nationwide, Castillo said.
Maria Garcia, a 39-year-old nutritionist and mother of six children, is typical of the Republicans who are trying to make inroads among Hispanic voters. She is running in the 51st Congressional District, which includes a slice of San Diego and hugs the border east through Imperial County.
Garcia is trying to attract Democratic voters — mainly Hispanics more conservative than Democratic incumbent Bob Filner of San Diego.
Politically inexperienced and without financial support from the GOP, Garcia contrasts her heritage with Filner’s New York roots.
“I fit the demographics of the district. It is majority Hispanic,” she said. “I have family on both sides of the border. I have been a frequent border crosser.”
Luis Vega, the Republican challenger to Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, said the success of opposition parties in Latin America in breaking the dominant party’s hold on power also is awakening voters here.
The most visible example is Vicente Fox’s election as president of Mexico in 2000, a victory that ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s 71-year hold on the presidency.
“More people are realizing that one party is not the answer to all the problems,” said Vega, who calls himself a “neo-Republicano.”
Democrats acknowledge they cannot lose Hispanic support and maintain their lock on elected offices in California. Only one Republican, Secretary of State Bill Jones, holds statewide office.
But they say voters will not be taken in by symbolism and rhetorical flourishes that do not match Republican policy on such key issues as immigration and health care.
“I think in California especially, voters are wise to that game. They know with 187 and other issues that Republicans do not produce for minorities,” said Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Norwalk, who faces Alex Burrola in the 38th Congressional District.
Two years ago, Republican congressional candidates in California included longtime TV anchorman Rich Rodriguez and schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, a leader of the campaign to end bilingual education.
Rodriguez ran a strong race in losing to Democratic incumbent Cal Dooley of Hanford. Tuchman won 35 percent of the vote against Sanchez in the same election in which President Bush won 29 percent of California’s Hispanic vote.