Should Democrats be worried?
By Pablo Manriquez
It was unthinkable to most political operatives a generation ago, or even an election cycle ago, that Republicans would be making gains with Latino voters across the country.
“Ten years ago, the political establishment never competed for our vote,” said Chuck Rocha, a top progressive political consultant focused on Latino voter engagement and turnout. “Before, Republicans would just walk past the barrio and say why even try when they all vote Democrat? That’s changed a whole bunch with the Koch Brothers and the LIBRE Initiative who built infrastructure in the Latino communities.”
LIBRE’s executive director Daniel Garza agrees: “I’m absolutely convinced that the Republicans who did a horrible job of showing up for decades have really stepped up their game in the last 6 to 8 years when it comes to the Latino community. It’s forced the Republican Party to actually make investments in Latino communities.”
LIBRE has been making inroads in Latino communities for over a decade, and data suggests that it’s paying off with a marginal but wide berth of Latino voters. “We find the need, we go out into the community, and we engage,” said Garza, a Republican. “In Nevada we’re holding diverse license workshops. In Orlando, we’re doing English language classes. In Texas, we’re doing entrepreneurial workshops.”
“What bothers me,” said Rocha, a Democrat, “is not that Trump won big in the Rio Grande Valley and Miami Dade — it’s that they did marginally better all across the country with Latino voters.”
President Biden won Latino voters by wide margins overall in 2020. In states like Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Biden won Latinos by a 3-to-1 margin, according to research by UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Initiative.
What has alarmed and puzzled Democrats like Rocha is Donald Trump’s increase in support among Latino voters by four percent overall between 2016 and his failed reelection bid in 2020.
“One of the things the Trump campaign did very well is that we had an incredibly talented team and a Latinos for Trump coalition — led by Sandra Benitez, Kevin Cabrera, Alex Garcia — that spent years building support for the president. By the time I joined the campaign in April, they had already organized and hosted thousands of events — both formally and at a grassroots level — with Hispanics across the country. Their face-to-face efforts made a big impact,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a Trump campaign aide during the 2020 race.
“We also engaged communities that had been overlooked by political observers,” said Sopo, “like Colombians in South Florida and Boricuas in Wisconsin, and challenged the left on hot-button cultural issues we knew were unpopular with Hispanics — like the Latinx term (which Biden himself liked to use) and their Goya boycotts — that Republican campaigns are sometimes unsure of how to approach.”
The thought of so many Latinos voting for Trump continues to perplex Democratic Party leadership and political operatives alike.
“Did they listen to what Trump said about Latinos?” said House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a June 2021 interview with Latino Rebels, who expressed confidence in Democratic prospects with Latino voters in the midterms.
“Clinton won it. Obama won it. Biden won it,” said Hoyer about the Latino vote, adding: “We should tell them about what we’ve done in terms of Latinos and other groups in this country.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a more-measured outlook on the relationship between Democrats and Latinos. “Part of our issue in the last election is that you could not go door-to-door to get out the vote. We will be able to go door-to-door next time,” said Pelosi last year.
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” admits Rocha when asked about the same midterm. “We don’t know if more Republican Latinos are voting than Democrat Latinos, but more Latinos are voting in some Republican primaries and that’s a disturbing trend. We don’t know who they are.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez echoes Rocha’s concern about Democratic Party lacking focus in Latino communities. “Historically there just hasn’t been enough effort into organizing Latino communities,” she said. “That doesn’t just mean translating English messaging. It means a more-concerted effort into understanding and organizing.”
In March, Quinnipiac researchers found that Biden’s approval rating dropped from 33 to 26 percent among Latino voters surveyed. Inflation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and immigration were the most pressing concerns.
“Biden hasn’t been a very effective president,” said Garza, an opinion he shares with most Republicans, including both Senators from his home state of Texas. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, like most Republicans in Congress, are practiced in delivering a narrative of political failures and policy catastrophes.
Garza said policy discussions are the focus of LIBRE’s approach to the midterms.
“Anytime you're personality driven, that’s dangerous stuff,” he said, adding: “There’s a policy sweet spot when it comes to Latino communities that aligns with Republican outreach. Before the left of center perspectives dominated the political discussion within the Latino community and the Republican Party stayed away. Now there’s right-of-center infrastructure so Republicans can play offense instead of just playing defense. Republican policies can no longer be distorted in a Democratic silo and Republicans are winning.”
Republican Senators Ted Cruz (TX) and Marco Rubio (FL) say working class messages resonate with Latino voters.
“Conventional wisdom used to be that Republicans are the party of the rich and Democrats the party of the working class,” Cruz told Latino Rebels. “In the last decade, that has flipped upside down. Today Republicans are, and I believe should be, the party of working men and women … the party of truck drivers and construction workers, and steelworkers … the cops and firefighters and waiters and waitresses … And today Democrats are the party of rich coastal elites … and many of them look down on working men and women … And I think the Hispanic vote reflects that broader trend in Texas.”
Senator Rubio echoed Cruz: “These are working-class people who believe in normal things,” said Rubio of Latino voters. “Suddenly, every time they wake up in the morning they’re hearing some outrage, some news, some crazy thing,” he added. “And on top of that you have people talking about how terrible this country is, and small business owners being told they’re going to be considered as rich and things of this nature. … And so what’s happened is the left has gone so far left, it’s left millions of Americans, not just Hispanic voters, but millions without a political home. … So that’s why I think you’ve seen so many of them vote, not even right versus left, but normal versus crazy.”
Meanwhile, center-right organizations like LIBRE continue to make inroads into Latino communities that had previously been ignored by Democrats. Garza tells of a pastor who has noticed a profound shift in the number of Latinos arriving at GOP organizing events in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
“There used to be 2 or 3 Latinos there under the tent for Republicans,” said Garza. “Now the place is filling up. We literally listen to where Latinos are at instead of imposing an agenda on the Latino voter.”