Latino Prospects in Senate Dwindle

Nathan L. Gonzales March 1, 2012 · 1:47 PM EST

Latinos are growing into a powerful voting bloc, but there is the real possibility that the U.S. Senate won’t have any additional Hispanics next year.

Last year, a handful of Latinos had an opportunity to get elected and join Florida’s Marco Rubio and New Jersey’s Bob Menendez as the only Hispanics in the chamber. But as the election trudges on, none of them have particularly bright prospects.

The lack of new senators isn’t because of a wide-spread bias against Latino candidates, but an exercise in political reality. They’re either running in competitive primaries against better-funded, better-known, and more-established candidates or running against the partisan grain of their particular state.

Latinos have the best chance to win in the Southwest, but the candidates there still have very difficult races.

In Arizona, national Democratic strategists prefer former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, even though he faces a former state party chairman in the primary. Carmona served under President George W. Bush, so Democrats believe he’ll be able to appeal to enough Republicans in order to win in a Republican-leaning state.

In the general election, Carmona starts behind in the polls and money against Rep. Jeff Flake, since the Democrat has never run for office before. It’s not an impossible race for Carmona to win, but the Latino is the underdog.

In New Mexico, state Auditor Hector Balderas (D) raised more than three-quarters of a million dollars last year for his campaign but he still trails his Democratic opponent, Albuquerque-area Rep. Martin Heinrich, in money and in the polls. Heinrich raised almost $2 million last year and released a poll showing him ahead of Balderas, 52 percent to 22 percent.

Even though Balderas is well-liked and considered to be a rising star in New Mexico politics, Democratic strategists in Washington, D.C., prefer Heinrich to be their party’s nominee. But if Balderas can pull off the upset in the primary, he would start the general election well-positioned to win.

Other Latino candidates either have a more difficult road ahead or dropped out altogether.

Last month, Lt. Gov. John Sanchez (R) announced he was ending his Senate bid in New Mexico, essentially ceding the GOP nomination to former Rep. Heather Wilson.

“Throughout the course of this campaign, it has become clear to me, that in order to ensure that a Republican is elected to represent New Mexico in the U.S. Senate, the G.O.P must stand united,” Sanchez said in a statement. “The reality is that the path forward to success in the campaign could cause a negative primary struggle that would leave the eventual nominee bruised, bloody and broke.”

Sanchez was trying to run as the conservative alternative to Wilson, who has a more moderate reputation, but the lieutenant governor failed to keep up with the former congresswoman’s fundraising and struggled to draw a bright enough ideological line. Sanchez had one tenth of the cash available for his campaign compared to Wilson at the end of the year.

In Texas, Republican Ted Cruz is beloved by national conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. But the former state solicitor general is locked in a very competitive Republican primary.

Not only is Cruz the underdog to wealthy Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, but Cruz is in danger of finishing third in the initial primary, behind the former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert, and missing the run-off altogether. Cruz has raised over $3 million, but it’s nowhere near enough to raise his profile with campaign ads in such a large state with multiple expensive media markets.

Also in Texas, Democrats were initially excited about their chosen candidate: retired Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. But he also struggled to raise money and dropped out of the race before the filing deadline. Even if he had been the Democratic nominee, his chances would have been slim. Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Texas in almost 25 years.

Like this election, the future success of Latino candidates is partially contingent on factors outside of their control, such as the partisanship of their state or who their opponents might be. But Latinos can help themselves by raising more money to more effectively introduce themselves to their electorates.

An earlier version of this story first appeared on NBCLatino.com