For 13 years, Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez has commanded a good chunk of her southern California district with a reliable and strong bloc of votes from a large Hispanic population. She has ridden her Mexican ancestry and pro-immigrant policies to repeated electoral victories -- until now.
Now things are getting tough. Locked in a tight re-election campaign against a Vietnamese-American Republican, Sanchez, who was born in California to Mexican parents, said in an interview with Univision TV earlier this month that the "Vietnamese and the Republicans" in her district were "trying to take away"
her House seat after "we have done so much for our community."
Her remarks ignited the blogosphere and talk radio and angered residents of Santa Ana
, which she represents and which has one of the country's oldest and largest Vietnamese communities. Conservative commentators joined the fray when her words were reported in the Orange County Register this week, and her opponent, a state assemblyman named Van Tran, lashed back, calling her remarks "offensive and wrong."
Poor Loretta, she was left with nothing to do but apologize. "I used a poor choice of words that some people have taken as offensive," she said at a news conference Friday afternoon. "I apologize for those remarks."
But she didn't apologize for calling him "very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic.''
"She directly attacked me, slandered me," Tran said on Friday, demanding an apology. A lawyer
who with his family left Saigon shortly before South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975, Tran accused her of going on "a racial rampage" on Spanish-language TV.
We throw those words around too loosely, but the truth is, there's no way to misinterpret Sanchez's remarks. She was plainly playing the race card, making a play for the Hispanic vote by pitting Latinos against the smaller Vietnamese community.
What's startling, too, was her apparent sense of entitlement. When she said that the Vietnamese and the GOP were trying to "take away this seat," she clearly meant "our seat." That unsaid but implied word -- "our" -- made a big difference. Was she saying that Hispanics own that seat?
That is old bloc politics -- and it isn't any prettier when it is a Hispanic Democrat mouthing the words and taking that low road.
Sanchez, who is 50, had been running just a few points ahead of Tran, according to recent polls, but it's too soon to know how this misstep could harm her candidacy for an 8th term in Congress. Maybe it won't hurt her at all.
Hispanics do carry a big stick in electoral politics, and on the whole the Democratic Party has been their home. Loretta Sanchez switched parties in 1996 after she ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the Anaheim City Council. Her younger sister, Linda Sanchez, a Democrat who is nine years her junior, was elected to California's 39th District in 2002.
Coincidentally, a strong lineup of Hispanic Republicans
is running for high office in the midterms, hoping to break Latino blocs that Democrats seem to take for granted. The three most prominent of them -- the U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio of Florida, Nevada gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval, and New Mexico gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez -- are all ahead in the polls.
Surveys show that Hispanics identify more with the Democratic Party than with the GOP. But recent polls also show that many Hispanics are open to conservative views, the Wall Street Journal
reported Saturday. In a survey last year by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, 56 percent of Hispanics opposed abortion rights and 44 percent opposed gay marriage, positions usually linked to Republican conservatives. And another Pew survey shows a surprisingly high number of Hispanics (30 percent) favor the tough anti-immigrant Arizona law.
So it's not far-fetched to think that Loretta Sanchez's seat may not be all that secure. Maybe her solid Hispanic vote is not so solidly liberal anymore. Nothing is as it was in this political cycle, and she knows it.