Why can’t Latinos get elected to the US Senate?

by Nathan L. Gonzales May 15, 2013 · 2:00 PM EDT

Latinos are growing in population and electoral clout but can’t seem to grow their numbers in the U.S. Senate. And if Republican Gabriel Gomez doesn’t win next month’s special election in Massachusetts, it could be three more years before another Latino is added to the U.S. Senate.

Even though the midterm elections are still almost a year and a half away, the candidate fields are already starting to solidify and, besides Gomez, there don’t appear to be any credible Latino candidates in the most competitive races.

The lack of Hispanic candidates is striking, not just because of the growing Latino population, but because eight Senators have announced their retirement, leaving an open seat for aspiring candidates who don’t want to take on an incumbent. But in each case, both parties are looking to non-Hispanic candidates to run to take each senator’s place.

So why aren’t the parties recruiting Latinos to run?

In the case of a vacancy, party strategists often look to current or former officeholders to run because they can start with name identification, a base of electoral support, and fundraising experience.

But in seven out of the eight states with an open Senate seat in 2014, there is not a single Latino member of Congress or statewide officeholder. In the eighth state, New Jersey, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), who is African-American, is the frontrunner to replace Frank Lautenberg, while Rep. Albio Sires (D) has never been a part of the Senate discussion.

In order to run for higher office, there must be more Latinos in lower offices.

Congress or statewide office is not a prerequisite for the Senate. While New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez served in the House of Representatives before getting elected to the Senate, Marco Rubio (R) was speaker of the Florida Legislature previously and Ted Cruz (R – Texas) had never held elected office before winning election to the Senate. They are the only three Latinos in the U.S. Senate.

Another reason for the dearth of Latino Senate candidates could be the lack of opportunity.

Some of the states with the highest Hispanic populations and officeholders, including California, Florida, and Arizona, won’t have a Senate race until 2016. And in Texas, Republican Sen. John Cornyn is up for re-election but is regarded as safe from primary and general election challengers.

So even as immigration reform remains of the most debated topics in Washington, there is very little chance any new Latino voices will be added to the Senate discussion anytime soon.

There is one way to gain Latino senators before 2016: appointments. When senators resign, governors often appoint a replacement. That’s how two African Americans, South Carolina Republican Tim Scott and Massachusetts Democrat Mo Cowan, were added to the Senate this year. Gomez is trying to succeed Cowan.