By Paul C. Barton
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - For Hispanic congressional candidates, this week's California primary brought some stinging disappointments, raising questions about whether the Hispanic community stands "organizationally ready" to solve persistent registration and turnout problems, political analysts say.
In several congressional districts where Hispanics make up at least 40 percent of the population, the Latino candidates finished with percentages that suggest they failed to fully energize that voting block.
"I think one of the big systematic things here is low turnout," said Shaun Bowler, political scientist at the University of California at Riverside. "Low turnout really helps GOP candidates and skews the electorate to older and more Anglo than the underlying population figures. And of course, one of the things about the population figure in relation to the vote is that voters (have to be) over 18 and U.S. citizens."
Statewide, turnout was a record low 24 percent. In Riverside County, it was 22.2 percent, according to the California Secretary of State's office.
When the California Citizens Redistricting Commission redrew political lines after the 2010 Census, it was widely seen as creating the potential for Hispanics to gain an additional three to six seats in the state's 53-member U.S. House delegation -- with the gains largely in the southern part of the state.
Currently, there are seven Californians in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The state's population is 38 percent Hispanic.
This year's primary was unique because it called for the top two finishers in each race, regardless of party, to advance to the Nov. 6 election.
Congressional races where Hispanic political power had potential to draw attention to itself included:
- District 36: Hispanic challenger and Democrat Raul Ruiz with 42 percent of the vote finished second to Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack's 58 percent. The Latino population is 47 percent.
- District 10: Democrat Jose Hernandez with 28.7 percent finished second to Republican Rep. Jeff Denham's 48.3 percent. The Hispanic population is 40 percent.
- District 21: Hispanic John Hernandez, a Democrat, finished second with 22 percent to Republican David Valadao's 57.3 percent. The district is 71 percent Hispanic. Although Valadao is of Portuguese descent, some Republican Hispanic groups championed his candidacy. Others said he didn't qualify as Hispanic based on how the Census Bureau counts ethnicity.
- District 31: The leading Hispanic in the race, Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar got only 22 percent, finishing third and out of the running behind incumbent Rep. Gary Miller and Bob Dutton, both Republicans. The Hispanic population is 41 percent.
- District 19: Hispanic independent Jay Cabrera finished fourth with 4 percent. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren was first with 65 percent, followed by two Republicans. The Hispanic population is 41 percent.
- District 16: Incumbent Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat and Hispanic, finished first with 41 percent in a district that is 58 percent Hispanic. It was seen as a sign of Costa's weakness by some, even though two of his four opponents were also Hispanic.
- District 24: Hispanic Republican Abel Maldonado finished second with 30 percent behind incumbent Democratic Rep. Lois Capps' 47 percent. The Hispanic population is 34 percent.
Two of places where Hispanic voters were expected to have the most impact were District 36 and District 31.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed officials, said he remains encouraged about Ruiz's chances, despite his showing 16 points behind Bono Mack.
"He has made it to November," he said. "So now he has to energize the Latino base."
For Ruiz and other Hispanics, Vargas said, much will also depend on the help they get from their national parties to register voters and boost turnout.
"If you register 10,000 new Latinos there (District 36), that could make a big difference," added Antonio Gonzalez of the William C. Velasquez Institute in Los Angeles, a research organization on Latino political participation.
But for others, the strengths Bono Mack has shown throughout her 14 years in Congress -- conservative fiscal values blended with moderation on selected social issues -- were on full display again.
Bono Mack vs. the Harvard-educated Ruiz was one of the few California matchups featuring only one Republican against one Democrat, wrote Stuart Rothenberg, a leading Washington election analyst.
"Mack's margin demonstrates Democrats' uphill climb against the congresswoman. We continue to rate the race as Republican Favored, though even that may overstate Democratic prospects here," Rothenberg added.
As for District 31, where Aguilar came in third, Vargas said, "That was certainly a disappointment."
Similarly, Bruce Cain, a University of California at Berkeley analyst, said some of the primary races, especially Aguilar's, showed the Hispanic community "was not organizationally ready for the challenge."
"Since there was no action on the Democratic side in terms of the presidential race, there was no serious mobilization, and this clearly helped the Republicans," Cain said.
Still, considering some of the factors at work, Tuesday was far from a total disappointment for Latinos, others said.
For instance, it became clear that Districts 29 and 51 in Southern California will likely become Hispanic gains. Hispanic candidates Tony Cardenas in District 29 and Juan Vargas in District 51, both Democrats, swamped their closest competitors.
"Latino candidates did not do nearly as well as they could have but did a lot better than they would have before lines were withdrawn," said political analyst Dan Schnur of the University of Southern California.
But there is no getting around the turnout and registration issues, some said.
Hispanic registration nationwide stood at about 11 million in 2010, but 2008 gains had suggested a trend that would have put it at 12 million by then, according to an analysis by the Velasquez Institute.
For this November, Gonzalez said, Hispanic registration is expected to be 12 million to 13 million, when four years ago it looked like it was on a trend to reach 14 to 15 million.
The institute's latest figures for California show Hispanic registration at 3.26 million out of a voting age population of 8.85 million and a citizen voting age population of 5.19 million. That means a 62.8 percent registration rate compared to 67.1 percent for blacks and 69.9 percent for whites.
Efforts to increase registration among Hispanics have been held back by the mortgage crisis associated with the financial meltdown of 2008, Gonzalez said.
It was a crisis that disproportionately affected Latinos and blacks, he said, forcing many to pull up stakes and move. As a result, many have had much more on their minds than politics.
"They have had more important things to do, like feed themselves and their families," he said.
Regardless, Schnur said of Latino voters, "It's up to (them) to take advantage of their opportunities."