updated 11/1/2006 8:49:23 AM ET 2006-11-01T13:49:23

An estimated 5.6 million Latinos could vote in this year's midterm elections and help Hispanics make gains in state and federal political office, a nonpartisan Latino group said Tuesday.

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The expected Latino votes is an increase from about 4.7 million who turned out in 2002, the last year of elections that didn't include a presidential contest, according to a study by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The association works to increase civic participation by Latinos and raise their numbers in public office.

Latinos also are expected to cast a slightly larger share of the overall votes, 6 percent this year, up from 5 percent four years ago.

In Texas, the number of Latino voters is expected to increase from 982,000 Latinos voting in 2002 to about 1.19 million in 2006.

The biggest change is expected in Colorado where NALEO projects Latino voters to go from 118,000 in 2002 to 163,000 this year, a 38 percent jump. Latinos will comprise the largest share of voters, 40 percent, in New Mexico.

"We think that Latinos are just becoming increasingly engaged in the electoral process. Latino voters want to make their voices heard on issues important to the community," said Rosalind Gold, a senior director at NALEO and one of the study's researchers. She said the estimates are considered conservative.

The increase is a result of demographic change, population growth and increased outreach by both political parties to Latinos, she said.

The increases are showing up in states with some of the more competitive races for U.S. House and Senate seats.

Latinos are expected to make up at least 7 percent of the vote in New Jersey where incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat, faces a tough challenge from state Sen. Thomas Kean, Jr.

They should comprise 13 percent of voters in Arizona where Democratic real estate developer Jim Pederson, a Democrat, is challenging Republican incumbent Jon Kyl in the Senate race, NALEO said.

In Texas, the Latino share of the vote is expected to be 22 percent, up from 19 percent.

Incumbent Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, is on the ballot with seven challengers, five of whom also are Latino. About 48 percent of eligible voters in that district are Latino, NALEO said.

In Congressional District 22, a Houston area district that was represented by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, 17.1 percent of the eligible voters are Latino. In that race, Democrat Nick Lampson shares the ballot with Libertarian Bob Smither. Republicans are waging a write-in campaign for Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who is considered the underdog to Lampson.

In this year's election, Latinos are running for top federal and state offices in 38 of 50 states, compared to 35 they hold now. Many of the candidates are running in nontraditional Latino communities.

"In those communities, Latino candidates are starting to be able to raise money, get top endorsements and build political networking," Gold said.

Latinos are expected to see a net gain of four seats in state Houses, Assemblies or Delegates, mostly due to Latino Republicans winning in nontraditional states or communities.

In congressional races, Democrat Patricia Madrid is in a tight race against incumbent Republican Heather Wilson for New Mexico's District 1 House seat. Albio Sires, a Democrat, is considered to have locked up the race to fill Menendez's seat, which has been vacant since January.

Currently, there are 18 Latino Democrats and four Latino Republicans in the U.S. House. Should Madrid and Sires win and all Republicans be re-elected, the number would increase to 24.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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