Up for Grabs
Both parties want Latino votes in Texas
By Valerie Menard
The primaries to determine the final candidates for this year’s midterm election on November 8 have passed. As the votes were counted last March, Texas once again grabbed headlines, not just for Beto O’Rourke’s win as the Democratic nominee for governor running against Republican incumbent Greg Abbott, but for other results that brought renewed attention to Latino voters.
Predicting Latino voting inclinations remains elusive but the primary offered a little insight. Progressive candidates like Greg Casar in Austin and Judge Lina Hidalgo in Houston won their primaries, but so did Latina Republicans in the Rio Grande Valley like Mayra Flores and Monica De La Cruz. These results showed that Latino voters in Texas are trending in all directions. In other words, they’re up for grabs.
Given the diversity that makes up the Latino community, using broad strokes has proved ineffective. But focusing on relevant issues, messaging, and investment in outreach—region by region—remains key to winning Latino voters. Each party seems to do a better job at some but not all of these factors.
Something is Happening
As the votes were tallied, Texas Republicans declared that the GOP had continued to make gains among Latino voters from the Trump era, especially in the historically Democratic Rio Grande Valley. When comparing voting totals, Democratic turnout outnumbered Republican turnout in three of the targeted districts in South Texas, Districts 34, 15, and 28 currently held by three Latinos, Filemon Vela Jr., Vicente Gonzalez, and Henry Cuellar respectively. Cuellar must survive a runoff against Jessica Cisneros of San Antonio. There’s also a Republican runoff for that seat between Cassy Garcia and Sandra Whitten.
Adding to the confusion, Vela resigned in March, triggering a special election to fill the seat until the term ends this year. Democrat Dan Sanchez will face Flores in a special election on June 14, but she will also face Gonzalez in the midterm. He switched from District 15 to 34 after redistricting made 15 more Republican and 34 more Democratic. De La Cruz will face the winner of another runoff in District 15 between Democrats Michelle Vallejo and Ruben Ramirez.
According to Chuck Rocha, founder of Nuestro PAC, a political action committee created to engage Latino voters in support of Democratic candidates, “The numbers don’t lie. Three times as many Democrats voted in Hidalgo County than Republicans, but there were twice as many Republicans who had ever voted before, so that’s the bad news. Something is happening among Latinos, more voted for a Republican president than ever have in 2020.”
Gilberto Ocañas, of the UGO Strategies+ consulting firm, adds: “In south Texas, Democratic voters outperformed Republicans 20,000, to 16,000 in District 15, 29,000 to 10,000 in District 34 and 20,000 to 13,000 in District 28 so it’s still a Democratic thinking populace. So the bar is low for Republicans and higher for Democrats. Any gains they’re making are going to look like successes. There has always been great ambivalence and distrust among Latino voters especially in rural areas as to what Democrats or Republicans say especially during campaigns. Currently, there’s just more fanfare about Republicans actually taking notice of Latinos, but it’s not anchored in any reality of real progress in people’s lives, which is what Latinos really want, not campaign rhetoric.”
While Democrats have relied on the usual 70 percent of support that their candidates get from Latino voters, Equis Research, a Latino research organization, revealed that Democrats can no longer take Latinos for granted. A post-mortem of the 2020 election, titled "The American Dream Voter, " showed that Latino voters supported President Trump in larger numbers than expected and shifted substantially from 71 percent Democratic in 2016 to 63 percent Democratic in 2020. Voting behavior among white, black, and Asian voters, however, remained relatively stable from 2016 to 2020.
Kitchen Table Issues
Texas remains a focus for strategists because of the changing demographics in the state, particularly the growth of the Latino population that some had said would automatically turn the state purple since Latinos tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
According to estimates from the U.S. Census, the Latino population in Texas grew by 2 million from the last census, to make up 39.7 percent of the state’s population compared to the non-Hispanic white population that grew to 41.2 percent. It’s estimated that Latinos will make up the largest population group in the state before the next census.
But while the Latino population continues to grow, kitchen table issues like immigration, education, and economics remain important, but the top issue among the three has flipped. Regarding immigration, an analysis of election eve polls by Equis Research shows that in 2016, 39 percent of Latinos in Texas considered immigration the top issue, whereas in 2020, 42 percent of Latinos in Texas considered jobs and the economy the most important issue.
In an interview with CBS News, Rocha suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic may have given economics the upper hand, allowing Republicans to over perform in 2020. Many Latino entrepreneurs had to close their businesses while Latino workers remained unemployed but without the same access to federal help as others workers. Where Trump’s stance on immigration hurt him among Latinos in 2016, his pro-business stance helped him in 2020 because Latinos were desperate to reopen the economy.
More nuanced issues may also be at play. Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, believes that there is definite momentum to the right among Latinos. In a guest editorial for the New York Times he writes: “Hispanic voters, many of us alienated by progressive labels and mottos like ‘Latinx’ and ‘defund the police,’ have been drifting rightward as Donald Trump marginally increased the GOP Hispanic vote share in 2016 and again in 2020—a phenomenon, it should be noted, that goes beyond Mr. Trump or any individual campaign. … As the Democratic Party drifts away from its working-class roots and emphasizes cultural issues, Republicans are well positioned to pick up these politically untethered voters and with them the reins of power.”
Ocañas agrees that focusing on the right issues and message to Latinos will make all the difference, but counters that Democratic policies regarding healthcare, the DREAMers, and increasing the minimum wage are popular among Latinos. Democrats just need to intensify their outreach efforts.
“At the end of the day, Republican policies are anti-Latino, but Democrats need a better-balanced message,” he advises. “They should be more pro-immigration reform and not take the bait of discussing open borders. They should be proactive and stick to bread-and-butter economic issues, education, safe communities, and not react to Republicans. They should also be more inclusive toward young voters and women. The message should be more balanced and present voters with a choice by demonstrating what Democrats are for, compared to Republicans.”
Rocha adds, “There’s a lot of work to be done to communicate what Democrats are doing, but if they wait too long, they’ll end up barking at the wind.”
Sometimes it’s not the message but the candidate that can energize voters. Ailyn Rodriguez voted in her first presidential election in 2018, but it was first-time candidate Hidalgo who inspired her to vote. A political outsider, Hidalgo decided to run for county judge in a seat traditionally held by Republicans and rarely primaried by Democrats. Uncontested, she won the primary and then the seat and has since become a rising star in the party. Rodriguez was so impressed that she helped form a political action committee, Young Latinas for Lina to support Hidalgo’s re-election campaign. In March, Hidalgo faced many Democratic contenders but won the primary with 70 percent of the vote.
“Lina was an inspiration to me, I’ve seen her grow and I’ve grown alongside her,” shares Rodriguez. who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at the Hobby School of Public Affairs. “I’ve always loved politics, but after seeing what Lina’s doing at a local level, promoting policy geared toward benefiting the community and underserved, I didn’t know how to explore that passion. At Young Latinas for Lina, we aim to re-elect Lina, but also to increase outreach in the Latino community and turnout. We’re engaged in voter registration, education, block walking, volunteering for Lina’s campaign, and fundraising.”
Money, Money, Money
Some might say the three most important factors for increasing Latino turnout are money, money, and more money. Many Latino political strategists have long criticized Democratic election initiatives and outreach because they lacked equitable funding compared to outreach efforts among other voting blocs, like women and African Americans, and Latino experts and consultants to help guide the way.
One of the loudest critics has been Rocha. It figures, since he managed to grow Latino support for Bernie Sanders during the 2020 presidential campaign and was largely responsible for his success in states like Nevada. At the time, Rocha credited the Sanders campaign for its support, including generous funding. This election cycle, he’s been impressed with the efforts by the White House and senatorial campaign committees that have grown the budget and inclusion of their Latino outreach efforts with the addition of messaging in Spanish. But on the House side, Rocha claims the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) hasn’t changed, using non-Latino consultants to offer the same advice and no substantial increase in funding directed at Latino outreach. Republicans, he counters, are spending more and earlier than before on bilingual messaging.
“Democrats lost 90 percent of the House seats in the last presidential election, barely holding on to a majority so it’s amazing to me that they’ve turned, once again, to the same folks for the midterms when their results were so terrible and yet expect a different result,” Rocha asserts.
Nuestro PAC will direct some of the $9 million it has raised so far to certain campaigns. Rocha admits that while impressive, that amount pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions at the DCCC’s disposal.
Similarly, Young Latinas for Lina has raised over $20,000, but Rodriguez admits that if she had more funds, the PAC’s work could be much more effective. “All Latinos should be active politically but we don’t have the tools to do it,” she says. “I urge all candidates to invest in our communities, talk to our communities, advocate for us, and look to our youth. We’re energized.”
Next to the effects of redistricting, a swath of voter suppression laws passed by Republican legislatures using unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, may do even greater damage to voter turnout. Known for having one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, Texas doubled down on voter suppression with SB 1, a law that restricts voting even further, particularly by mail.
While block walking and registering voters, Rodriguez says she was alarmed to find so many voters whose mail-in ballots had been rejected and were confused what to do about it. According to the Texas Tribune, 18,000 mail-in ballots were rejected.
While some runoffs remained to be decided at press time, the slate is fairly set. With political control over Congress at risk, as well as President Biden’s agenda, the stakes couldn’t be higher. On November 8, 2022, Latino voters will either win or lose the day.