Some Hispanic Congressional Members Breaking Partisan Mold

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 4, 2013 · 9:36 AM EST

Congress is derided as an increasingly partisan and polarized body, but a handful of Hispanic Members are trying to break the gridlock.

According to new ratings from National Journal, Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), and Raul Labrador (Idaho), as well as Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas were near the ideological center of Congress, after an analysis of votes taken in 2012. Republican David Rivera of Florida also ranked near the middle but lost re-election last fall because of ethics, not ideology.

The most moderate Latino Member last year was Ros-Lehtinen, who has been in Congress for more than two decades and had a conservative rating of 49.3 percent last year (100 percent would be the most conservative Member of Congress). She added to her centrist credentials this week when she signed a legal brief, along with 75 other Republicans, that advocated for gay and lesbian couples’ right to marry.

Her Florida colleagues, Diaz-Balart (52 percent conservative) and Rivera (53.7 percent), also ranked as two of the more moderate House Members, along with Herrera Beutler (56.2 percent) and Labrador (58.2 percent), both of whom were first elected in 2010. Labrador has received some national attention for his efforts to push his party to a more moderate position on immigration (even though he still opposes a path to citizenship), but he consistently gets excellent marks with conservative, anti-tax groups.

Cuellar was the most conservative Democrat, with a 57.7 percent liberal rating (100 percent would be the most liberal Member of Congress). That’s not too surprising since he has carried a moderate reputation since his days in the Texas legislature and relationship with then-Gov. George W. Bush.

But as a whole, Democratic Hispanic Members rated more ideological than their Republican counterparts. The Latino Democrats had an average liberal score of 81 percent (100 percent being the most liberal) while Latino Republicans had an average conservative score of 65 percent (100 percent being the most conservative) and were closer to the center.

On one hand, the liberal skew of the Democratic Latinos could be attributed to the fact that many of them represent very liberal districts. California Reps. Xavier Becerra and Lucille Roybal-Allard, Chicago-area Rep. Luis Gutierrez, and Rep. Jose Serrano of New York City all represent congressional districts with a Partisan Voting Index of at least D+20 and averaged 89 percent liberal score, according to National Journal. (PVI, as produced by The Cook Political Report, measures how each district performs compared to the nation as a whole. So their districts are at least 20 points more Democratic than an evenly partisan seat.) But, Labrador’s district in Idaho is very Republican (R+18), so it would be logical for him to have a very conservative record, yet his National Journal rating was far more moderate.

National Journal examined, categorized, and analyzed 116 House votes in 2012 which showed ideological distinctions between members while eliminating noncontroversial issues.

Representing a more competitive district doesn’t necessarily drive a Member to moderation. Ros-Lehtinen represents a R+6 district in Florida and had a very middle-of-the-road 49.3 percent conservative rating while Rep. Raul Grijalva represents a D+7 district in southern Arizona, but he had a 91.2 percent liberal rating and is co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Aside from Grijalva, there appears to be a geographic divide among Hispanic Democrats as Members from Arizona Rep. Ed Pastor and Latino Members from Texas and New Mexico are more moderate than their colleagues in the Northeast and California.

Rep. Joe Baca was the most moderate Democratic Hispanic in California last year but he lost in the general election to fellow Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod, in large part to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PAC well-financed attacks on Baca for his “A” rating with the National Rifle Association.

It remains to be seen whether newly-elected Members such as McLeod, California Democrats Juan Vargas and Tony Cardenas, and Joaquin Castro of San Antonio vote a liberal line or become more moderate, as some Latino campaign consultants expect. Since they took office in January, they were not included in the National Journal ratings.

Moderation might be one reason why Republican Hispanics have demonstrated a better ability to get elected in non-Hispanic districts.

For example, Ben Ray Lujan represents the lowest percentage of Hispanics of any Latino Democrat in Congress. His Santa Fe-based district in northern New Mexico has a Hispanic voting age population of 36 percent. In contrast, Labrador’s Idaho district is just 8 percent Hispanic VAP and Herrera Beutler’s seat in Washington is just 6 percent Hispanic VAP, which means the Hispanic percentage of the electorate is virtually non-existent because of voter drop-off. Rep. Bill Flores of Texas has just 20 percent Hispanic VAP, but he has a far more conservative record than his colleagues.

Democrat John Salazar represented Colorado’s 3rd District, which had a Hispanic VAP of 24 percent, and he had a National Journal moderate rating of 52.7 percent liberal, but he lost re-election in the Republican wave that same year.