New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is the ultimate immigrant success story: Two generations after her Mexican grandparents arrived in the U.S., she became the nation’s first Latina governor.

And with an overall approval rating of 66 percent of New Mexicans after more than a year in office, she is arguably the most popular Republican governor in the country.

But that popularity doesn’t always translate among Hispanics, a group that in New Mexico makes up nearly half of the population.

One issue that makes many of the state’s Latino voters seethe is their governor’s stance on driver’s licenses and illegal immigrants. In her 2010 campaign, Martinez promised to repeal a law that makes New Mexico one of only three states in the country where illegal immigrants can get a driver’s license.

Gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez is greeted by supporters Saturday during a rally in Santa Fe. - Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

At a speech in Albuquerque last year, Martinez said getting rid of the law is a matter of public safety.

“We have thousands of individuals who come to our state from not just Mexico, but all over the world in order to gain that very valuable ID,” she said.

A bill to repeal the driver’s license law has failed three times in the state legislature, and some critics charge that Martinez’s support of that bill is really part of a long-term political strategy.

“Why she is introducing policies that are divisive to the Latino community, we could only guess that it’s for political gain,” says Adrian Pedroza, who works with Hispanic neighborhoods in Albuquerque as the director of a local nonprofit.

‘Well, I’ll Be. I’m A Republican.’

Martinez, 52, is often touted as a possible 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, although she has said she would decline any offer.

Martinez grew up in a family of Democrats in a bilingual household in El Paso, Texas, just blocks from the border with Mexico. At 18, she worked in her father’s business as a revolver-carrying security guard outside a bingo hall.

She graduated from law school and later considered entering politics. That’s when some Republican friends took her out to dinner. It’s a story she often shares publicly.

“We talked about values; we talked about where we stood in reference to how the economy was going; we talked about welfare as being a hand up and not a way of life; we talked about the freedoms, the Second Amendment,” she says. “And I remember walking out of there and getting in the car with my husband, Chuck, and saying, ‘Well, I’ll be. I’m a Republican.’ “

Shortly after that, she ran for and was elected district attorney in the southern New Mexico county of Dona Ana.

Bringing In Latino Voters

New Mexico is considered a swing state that tends to lean in favor of Democrats, but the February Rasmussen poll shows Martinez enjoys broad support, even among Democrats, with whom her approval rating tops 50 percent. Among Hispanics in the state, 58 percent approve of the job she is doing, but 33 percent noted they “strongly disapprove” of her job performance — the highest of any group polled.

“I think because she is a Hispanic woman, she gets criticized more,” says Cindy Retana, an El Paso school principal and Martinez’s younger cousin. Retana says Martinez is being singled out for criticism because of her ethnic background. “She’s seen as forgetting where you come from, not being supportive of immigrants, which is absolutely the farthest thing from the truth.”

photo from the LA Times Blog

Martinez has said she is proud of her Mexican heritage, but she faces the same burning question as other high-profile Hispanic Republicans, like Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: Can she make the party more appealing to Latino voters nationwide?

Forty-nine percent of Florida voters approved of Rubio's job performance. | AP Photo

That remains to be seen, but what is certain is that the GOP faces an uphill battle. Another February poll of likely Hispanic voters nationwide, conducted by Fox News Latino, shows President Obama leading either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum by about a five-to-one margin in a prospective matchup.

The same poll found that 18 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for the Republican nominee if Martinez was the vice presidential choice. When Rubio was the vice presidential candidate, that number jumped to 24 percent.

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In Battle for Political Conquest, Ethnicity Sets the Boundaries for Both Parties

photo of Texas State Capitol Building in Austin at night

The political maps are out, finally, and this is as good as it gets for Texas Republicans unless they can figure out how to win votes from black and Hispanic voters.

For the Democrats, this is probably the bottom. They have to find more voters or be forced to continue relying on the ethnicity of their voters — and the protections that come with that ethnicity — to protect the seats they still have.

The Republicans have snapped up everything not nailed down by the federal Voting Rights Act.

Redistricting nods to fairness but is actually about power. It allows a Republican Legislature, for instance, to put a dog collar and a short leash on Democratic voters in Austin.

Travis County is one of just a few Texas counties that voted for Barack Obama for president. In the new Congressional maps, five districts reach into the county (none is based there), and only one is likely to produce a Democratic representative.

As it stands, the county would be represented by two people from Austin, one from San Antonio, one from Georgetown (a suburb) and one from Bryan. One of the Austin residents, Lloyd Doggett, an incumbent Democrat, will face tough opposition from San Antonio; the other, Michael McCaul, an incumbent Republican, has a district that runs east to Houston.

It’s safe to say lawmakers weren’t trying to empower the locals. It makes you wonder why the city of Austin rewards them with free airport parking.

Lawmakers don’t have to be fair. If they did, the court would have repaired the damage. It’s just that the law doesn’t protect geography as carefully as it protects minorities.

In Travis County, the minority populations are too scattered to draw a Congressional district protected by the Voting Rights Act. The seat most likely to elect a Democrat stretches into central San Antonio, and it is uncertain whether Mr. Doggett can prevail over someone from San Antonio. His district wasn’t protected.

The remaining Democratic seats in the state result from legal protections for minority groups that happen to vote for Democrats. The Republicans don’t have the legal ability to take more ground; the Democrats don’t have the political juice to win anything not legally protected.

Maps aren’t everything. Using the current maps, the Republicans got 101 seats in the Texas House; using the same maps two years earlier, they got only 76.

But maps mean a lot. The partisan compositions of the Texas Senate and of the state’s Congressional delegation have changed only marginally between redistricting episodes over the last 20 years. If you want change in those places, the most effective strategy is to change the maps.

The redistricting fights have been about the clout of minority voters. Virtually every legal skirmish was over a district that either is, or arguably should be, one in which minority voters have the power to decide the winners.

With few exceptions, the decision to create or protect a minority district was also a decision about whether it would elect a Republican or a Democrat. Talk about walking on eggshells — every conversation or argument about the maps teeters between politics and race.

This year’s elections will clear up the remaining questions. Mr. Doggett is the last Anglo Democrat in the Congressional delegation who wasn’t elected in a minority opportunity district. If he wins re-election, it will be in a Latino district. (Representative Gene Green, Democrat of Houston, also an Anglo, has represented a Latino district for years.)

The only genuine swing district on the Congressional map is District 23, where Representative Francisco Canseco, Republican of San Antonio, will face the winner of a Democratic primary that could include former United States Representative Ciro Rodriguez, whom Mr. Canseco beat in 2010. That’s a test of whether Republicans can hold a minority district.

United States Representative Blake Farenthold, Republican of Corpus Christi, got a district with a Republican voting history but where a majority of the voters are either black or Latino. That’s another political test tube.

Republicans can’t increase their already stout majorities without winning minority votes or getting rid of the law that protects minority voters. And Democrats have to figure out a way to win in districts drawn by the opposition.

Read more: Ross Ramsey, the executive editor at The Texas Tribune, writes a column for The Tribune article from the NYT

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