LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Hispanic labor leader Geoconda Arguello-Kline’s members work in low-key jobs like cooking, making beds and fetching drinks for visitors to Las Vegas.
Now, with the U.S. congressional elections nearing on November 2, her group feels powerful.
“The Latino vote has never been more important in Nevada,” Arguello-Kline said of the bloc that could hold the key to one of the West’s top Senate races.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the biggest target for Republicans in the country, is locked in a dead heat with conservative rival Sharron Angle in Nevada.
Angle, a former teacher backed by the Tea Party movement, leads with 50 percent to Reid’s 47 percent, according to the latest Rasmussen Reports poll released this week. The result is within the four percentage point margin of error.
Her message of low taxes and tough immigration enforcement is proving a winner with the Republican base in hard-hit Nevada, where the economy tanked and a housing boom went bust.
Unemployment in the state stands at 14.4 percent, the highest in the United States, and home foreclosures are rife, creating a dire economic picture for Republican, Democrat and independent voters alike.
To stave off defeat, analysts say Reid will need to fire up Nevada’s 224,000 Latino voters, who turned out by a heavy three-to-one margin for Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race.
“The Hispanic vote is much more crucial for Democrats this time around than it was two years ago,” said David Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “Reid is in a much closer race now than Obama was against John McCain.”
Obama energized Hispanic voters two years ago with a promise of immigration reform granting millions of undocumented workers a path to citizenship, although attempts to push legislation have been blocked by Republicans in Congress.
Reid has sought to build momentum with support for the Dream Act, which seeks to give legal status and full access to education to illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children.
Obama heads to Nevada on Friday to campaign for Reid and motivate groups like Arguello-Klein’s chapter of the Culinary Workers Union, many of whose 55,000 members are Hispanic.
Latinos are an increasingly powerful voting bloc in the United States, now accounting for more than 9 percent of the electorate.
Their votes are being fought for in highly competitive races for the U.S. Senate and state governor in neighboring California, the most populous state in the country, where Latinos make up nearly one quarter of the electorate.
But angst over jobs and disappointment over broken promises on immigration reform is causing doubts about the turnout this time, when Democratic control of the House of Representatives and the Senate are on the line.
Hispanic voters continue to support Democrats by a nearly two-to-one margin nationwide, according to a Pew Hispanic Center poll earlier this month.
But just 51 percent are certain they will actually vote next month — an enthusiasm gap that worries Reid’s campaign in Nevada, where Hispanics account for 14 percent of the electorate.
“All the people who are in charge now, I voted for in the last election,” said Las Vegas student Krystal Soto, 20, adding she was unlikely to vote for Democrats in November. “They promised me things and honestly I didn’t see it ... They said they would watch my back and then they didn’t.”
Angle has made few friends among Latinos after she supported neighboring Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law, the strictest in the nation to curb illegal immigrants.
And as polling day gets closer, her gaffes and missteps are helping to bring the Latino vote out for Reid.
Angle shocked Latinos with comments during a visit to a high school near Las Vegas, where she told puzzled Hispanic students “some of you look a little more Asian to me.”
Then a conservative group aired a Spanish-language television advertisement in Nevada urging Hispanic voters to stay home. It was pulled by Spanish-language networks but not before offending voters.
Omar Gomez, 29, an academic counselor in Las Vegas, said the ads made him want to turn off the television and helped to fan his concerns about “ultra Tea Party” Republicans.
“I will probably make sure that I get the vote in for Reid this year,” he added.
Editing by Mary Milliken and John O'Callaghan