WASHINGTON (AP) — Jose Hernandez worked in farm fields with his Mexican-immigrant parents before becoming an astronaut. Iraq War veteran Julius Melendez is the third generation of his Puerto Rican family to serve in the military. And Tony Cardenas, the youngest of 11 children of immigrant farmers from Jalisco, Mexico, has served in the California Assembly and on the Los Angeles City Council.
Next year, all of them could be coming to Congress.
The 2012 election is shaping up as a big one in the House for Hispanics. There are currently 29 in the House — including a Pacific islands delegate and Puerto Rico's resident commissioner — according to the Congressional Research Service. That number is virtually guaranteed to increase by at least three or four seats because of once-a-decade redistricting that's created new Hispanic-majority districts in California and Texas. On top of that, Hispanics could win more seats in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Florida.
"It's a watershed election for the Latino community," said Rep. Raul Grivalja, D-Ariz. "Our ability to influence decisions is evident and present and our ability to motivate voters is critical."
Hispanics are the fastest-growing group in the United States, increasing in population by more than 15 million between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census data. They make up more than 16 percent of the U.S. population, far more than their share of roughly 5 percent of the seats in the House.
In comparison, there are 44 blacks in the House, including two delegates, according to the CRS, a record number. Blacks comprise roughly 10 percent of the House, compared to about 12 percent of the U.S. population. There are 10 Asian-Americans in the House, according to the CRS, including two delegates, roughly 2 percent of the chamber compared to roughly 5 percent of the U.S. population.
Both parties say Hispanic candidates are pivotal in this year's race for control of the House.
Democrats, who need a net gain of 25 seats to take a majority, say Hispanic candidates could make up a fifth or more of that margin. Republicans, challenging in fewer districts because of their large current majority, have recruited strong Hispanic candidates for a handful of districts seen as opportunities to snatch Democratic seats.
The competition for Hispanic votes in congressional races — whatever the backgrounds of the candidates they're voting for — mirrors the presidential contest. While Hispanics as a group have historically favored Democrats, Republican Mitt Romney has indicated he will compete vigorously with President Barack Obama for their support.
Democrats say maximizing Hispanic turnout is a key to electoral success. Republicans, in turn, say chipping away at Democrats' margins with the group is crucial.
Obama injected fresh energy into the competition when he announced he was easing enforcement of immigration laws for hundreds of thousands of younger illegal immigrants and offering them a chance to stay in the U.S. and work. That is expected to motivate more Hispanic voters to turn out for Democrats in November.
California is expected to be the center of Hispanic increases in Congress. Democrats are running two Hispanic candidates likely to win in the fall: Cardenas, a Los Angeles City councilman, and Juan Vargas, a state senator and son of Mexican immigrants. Republican David Valadao, a state assemblyman and son of Portuguese immigrants, is likely to win a GOP-leaning district.
In competitive seats in California, both parties are running Hispanic candidates against incumbents who are not.
Hernandez, the former astronaut, is a Democrat challenging first-term GOP Rep. Jeff Denham in the newly drawn 10th Congressional District. As a child Hernandez helped his parents in the field and went on to study engineering in college. He makes his roots a big part of his appeal to voters, telling the story of how he watched the Apollo 17 launch on TV and his father laid out how he could become an astronaut himself.
"I was able to rise from the fields of California and touch the sky on the space shuttle Discovery as an astronaut," he said when he announced his campaign last October.
Democrats also have high hopes for Raul Ruiz, a medical doctor who grew up in a trailer with his Mexican farmworker parents and has received three graduate degrees from Harvard. Ruiz is running against GOP Rep. Mary Bono Mack, who has been in Congress since 1998. Democrats say the seat will be competitive this fall.
For the GOP, a prominent Hispanic candidate, Abel Maldonado, California's former lieutenant governor, is one of its best chances to pick off an incumbent. Maldonado is running against endangered Democratic Rep. Lois Capps, who has seen her district turn more conservative with redistricting. Maldonado's campaign ads highlight his background — his parents are Mexican immigrant farmers who eventually built their own farming business — and show him standing in a strawberry field and talking about what he learned from his father.
In one ad, as the camera pans over California farmland, Maldonado says: "It's time to teach Washington the lessons we've learned growing up."
Hispanic candidates are figuring prominently in other states where the Hispanic population has grown quickly.
In New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham is favored to take the state's 1st Congressional District, after Rep. Martin Heinrich decided to run for the Senate. In Nevada, State Assembly Speaker John Oceguera is taking on GOP Rep. Joe Heck in one of the Democrats' top targeted races. If she wins a crowded primary for Arizona's new 9th Congressional District, Leah Campos Schandlbauer, a former CIA agent, could give Republicans a prominent Hispanic on the ballot in what's likely to be a fiercely contested race.
In Florida, which has an August primary, Democrats have two Hispanic candidates — businesswoman Gloria Romero Roses, who was born in Colombia, and lawyer Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American — in the race to take on Republican Rep. David Rivera, a Cuban-American whom Democrats see as vulnerable. Republicans have two prominent Puerto Rican candidates vying to take on former Rep. Alan Grayson in Florida's Orlando-area 9th Congressional District: John "Q'' Quinones, a county commissioner and former state representative, and Melendez, the Iraq War veteran and a member of the local school board. Both are appealing to the district's sizable Hispanic population.
There has been one big disappointment for Hispanic growth in the House in 2012: Texas. It was poised to have the most new Hispanic members, with the state adding four new seats in 2012 thanks to large Hispanic growth. But at most two of the new seats will be represented by Hispanic lawmakers. The state is also losing two long-time Hispanic lawmakers, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, who is retiring, and Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who lost a primary to a non-Hispanic opponent, though Gonzalez is likely to be replaced by Joaquin Castro, a state lawmaker, Harvard Law graduate and second-generation Mexican-American.
Gonzalez, the chairman of the House Hispanic Caucus, said he still believes Hispanic influence is on the rise in the House, and he noted more Hispanic candidates running in competitive districts in 2012.
"Our power will only increase as time goes on," said Gonzalez. "Because of demographics, as goes the future of the Latino family, so goes the future of the United States."