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Experts say Arizona’s Latino voters are now a force to be reckoned with

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WASHINGTON – Even though Arizona remained red on the 2012 electoral map, organizers of the state’s solidly blue Latino voters were optimistic this week about the growing clout of their political bloc.

That’s because their numbers continue to grow – Latinos are expected to account for half of the state’s population by midcentury – and as they do, more of them are becoming eligible to vote and younger Hispanics are becoming more active.

Ignoring Latino voters is not something political parties can do from here on out, said Joseph Garcia, director of the Morrison Institute Latino Public Policy Center.

“You are not going to be able to win an election without the Latino vote. This was perhaps the last time in Arizona,” Garcia said.

But this last time was not necessarily the best time for Latino voters, based on election results alone.

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney won the state easily even though 74 percent of Arizona’s Latino voters supported President Barack Obama, according to a CNN exit poll.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his unyielding positions on immigration, won a sixth term despite a stiff challenge from Democrat Paul Penzone.

And Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, won the race for Senate by a comfortable margin over Democratic nominee Richard Carmona, who is of Puerto Rican descent.

But advocates said the final results were much closer than they would have been without the participation of a growing, active group of Latino voters.

The idea that Tuesday’s losses show that Latino voters are not relevant in Arizona politics is “crap,” said James Garcia, chairman of Arizona Latino Research Enterprise.

Garcia – no relation to the Morrison Institute’s Garcia – said Latino voters allowed Penzone, an “unknown” with a small campaign budget, to come within 10 percentage points of Arpaio, an incumbent with a multimillion-dollar war chest.

“This election and others are providing tangible proof that Latinos are a political force,” James Garcia said.

Joseph Garcia said both major parties will have to find ways to attract and retain Latino voters in the future. While Latinos and Republicans agree on many issues, such as faith and patriotism, he said the GOP’s hard line on immigration has been seen by some as anti-Latino and has turned some Hispanic voters away.

The two most important issues to Latino voters in Arizona were immigration and the economy, according to Latino Decisions, a political opinion research firm.

The Census Bureau said there were 1.9 million Hispanics in Arizona in 2010, just under 30 percent of the population. About a third of them cannot vote because they are not citizens, said Joseph Garcia, but that will change as their American-born children reach voting age.

While a Morrison Institute report said Latinos could account for more than half the state by midcentury, Joseph Garcia said change could come sooner than that. If current political trends hold, Arizona could be Democrat-blue by 2025, he said. And political strategists, candidates and the parties are probably planning for 2016.

“The next political campaign is already being shaped out,” he said.

That’s true even though the 2012 election is not over yet: The Arizona secretary of state’s office reported Thursday that 631,274 early and provisional ballots had yet to be counted.

Those ballots “very well could have an impact on the elections,” said Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the office.