By Elena Shore, New America Media

Latino voters may have saved the Senate for the Democrats, even as Latino candidates gained a record number of congressional seats on the Republican ticket.

Political observers say these seemingly contradictory outcomes make one thing clear: Latinos - as candidates and as voters - played a decisive role in Tuesday's election.

Ironically, the party that was accused of using anti-immigrant rhetoric gained victories for Latino candidates. Republican Susana Martinez was elected New Mexico's first Latina governor and Brian Sandoval became Nevada's first Latino governor. Latino Republicans won five new House seats, and one new Senate seat, giving Latino Republicans a record total of eight seats in both houses of Congress.

Latino voters also made the difference in Western states like California, Colorado and Nevada, where they warded off Republicans in key races, demonstrating Latinos' "rejection of anti-immigrant campaigns," according to Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

"The Latino firewall in the West actually helped save the Senate for Democrats," Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice in Washington, D.C., said during a press conference Wednesday.

A Latino Decisions poll of Latino voters in eight states, Illinois, Florida, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, found that "the GOP wave stops in California. There was virtually no evidence of a GOP wave in the state with the largest Latino population," according to pollster Gary Segura.

In California, Vargas said, Latinos helped defeat Republicans Meg Whitman, who took a tough on immigration stance during the primary, and Carly Fiorina, who opposed immigration reform.

"Latinos may well have saved the Senate. They certainly saved Harry Reid," said Segura. Latinos accounted for 10 percent of the vote in Nevada, according to Latino Decisions, and Reid won by only 5.4 percent.

Senate Majority Leader Reid was a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act, while his opponent, Republican Tea Party-backed Sharron Angle, used images of immigrants during her campaign that many Latinos found offensive.

In Arizona, Democrat Terry Goddard "destroyed" Republican Gov. Jan Brewer among Latinos, according to Segura, although the governor who signed the controversial immigration law SB 1070 triumphed in the overall vote. Sen. McCain, who also kept his seat in the election, received dismal support from Latinos in Arizona, who preferred his Democratic rival by a 4-to-1 margin.

Latino voters also played key roles in electing Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, accounting for 6 percent of the overall vote, and Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, where they made up more than 4 percent of the vote in a race whose margin was less than 1 percent.

"The Colorado results may be the highlight of the night for Latinos," said Segura, noting that Latino voters helped defeat conservative Tom Tancredo in his bid for governor.

Even when Latino Republicans were on the ballot, Latinos trended Democratic, Segura said, suggesting that the candidates' positions on the issues trumped their ethnicity. Brian Sandoval lost badly among Latinos in Nevada, and Susana Martinez got only 38 percent of the Latino vote in New Mexico.

Cuban-American Marco Rubio, who won the Senate race in Florida, enjoyed the support of the Cuban-American community there. But according to Latino Decisions, among non-Cuban Latinos, he lost by 60-to-40 percent.

"Some may have anticipated that Latino voters would vote for candidates simply because they were Latino," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). "That was clearly not the case."

Immigration reform advocates cautioned that simply putting Latino candidates on the ticket was not a valid long-term strategy for the GOP.

The candidates' positions on the issues were what mattered most, Martinez said, and Latino voters used a candidate's stance on immigration as a barometer to gauge his or her attitudes toward the Latino community.

When asked why they went to the polls, the plurality of Latinos (47 percent) said they were there to support and represent the Latino community. Fifty-three percent said anti-Latino or anti-immigrant sentiment influenced their decision to vote.

"Latinos turned out to vote for respect," said Martinez of NCLR. "Parties that demonize or take Latino voters for granted are doing it at a great risk if not at their peril."

"The message from Latino voters was clear: We reject the politics of fear and demonization," said Martinez.

If Republicans hadn't used anti-immigrant rhetoric in their campaigns, she added, "they could have captured the Senate."

Meanwhile, immigrant advocates say the results of Tuesday's election do not bode well for the passage of immigration reform.

"With Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and Steve King (R-Iowa) in charge of immigration politics for Republicans, we can expect them to pursue what can only be described as a mass deportation strategy," said Sharry of America's Voice. "Just as Latinos served as a firewall for Senate Democrats, we want Senate Democrats to serve as a firewall to the proposals being pushed by the House."