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updated: 11/9/2010 1:03 PM

Hispanics' gains suggest GOP 'on the right track'

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SAN DIEGO -- The midterm election was a watershed event for what is usually a lonely group of dissidents. These are people who belong to two distinct communities that are at odds with one another. One group worries that the dissidents are defined by their ethnicity while the other worries that they are running away from it.

They are Hispanic Republicans, and their ranks are growing. With one notable exception the loss by California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado to Democrat Gavin Newsome Hispanic Republicans made phenomenal gains across the country. In fact, when the 112th Congress convenes in January, it will include nine Hispanic Republicans a record number, some supported by the tea party.

By now, just about everyone knows the name Marco Rubio, the 39-year-old Cuban-American from a refugee family who was elected to the U.S. Senate from Florida.

Rubio had the best victory speech of the night. And these were some of the best lines.

"I know America's great," Rubio told supporters, "not because I read about it in a book but because I've seen it with my eyes. I've been raised in a community of exiles, of people who lost their country, of people who know what it's like to live somewhere else. By the way, a community that I am proud to be a part of ... And I know this. No matter where I go, or what title I may achieve, I will always be the son of exiles."

Also in Florida, Republican David Rivera was elected to fill an open seat in the House of Representatives.

In Nevada, Republican Brian Sandoval was elected the state's first Hispanic governor.

In Texas, where there are currently no Hispanic Republicans in the state House of Representatives, four were elected. Also in the Lone Star State, two Hispanic Republicans Francisco Canseco and Bill Flores were elected to the U.S. House, defeating veteran Democratic lawmakers.

In Washington, Republican Jaime Herrera will become the first Latina to represent her state in Congress.

In Idaho, Republican Raul Labrador becomes the first Hispanic to serve in Congress from that state.

New Mexico topped them all. Three Hispanic Republicans were elected to statewide offices in the Land of Enchantment Dianna Duran as secretary of state, John Sanchez as lieutenant governor, and rising star Susana Martinez as governor.

What does it all mean? I put that question to Frank Guerra, a San Antonio-based GOP marketing and communications strategist who has worked on the last three presidential campaigns. For one thing, Guerra said, it means that there will be a new harvest of Hispanic officials to help the GOP mend fences with Hispanic voters. There is a lot of work to be done in that area since most Republicans can't seem to talk about immigration without adopting an anti-Hispanic tone. Citing exit polls that showed about 33 percent of Hispanics voted for Republican candidates nationwide, Guerra takes comfort from the fact that many of these voters don't seem to hold a grudge.

What's important now is the direction that the Republican Party takes from here. If Hispanics are still willing to give the party a fair hearing, then the party needs to give them something worth listening to.

"I see an opportunity," Guerra said. "We haven't solved the problem (of alienating Hispanics) but we're on the right track."

Maybe so. And, if the GOP is smart, it'll let a new crop of Hispanic Republicans lead the way.

2010, The Washington Post Writers Group