PHOENIX — Astrid Pizarro stood in front of a dozen high school students last week as her fellow organizers scrambled to find umbrellas.
Dark clouds loomed as Pizarro prepped her team to canvass a nearby neighborhood. She began by asking them how they felt about the upcoming election. Some were excited, others were nervous.
“I’m scared that all the work we were pushing to do wasn’t enough,” she confessed. “But overall I’m super hopeful because every single day I get to work with you guys. I get to work with you guys on talking to voters that look like us.”
The office at Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, was humming as volunteers gathered, all with the goal of turning out Latino voters. LUCHA, which is Spanish for “fight,” is one of several groups targeting these sometimes unreliable voters.
Latino voters are a critical bloc in Arizona and neighboring Nevada, which are playing host to two hotly contested Senate races. While both parties have outreach efforts aimed at Latinos, the stakes are higher for Democrats.
“If the Democratic Latino vote doesn’t come out, we’re not even in contention,” Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego said.
Nevada Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said the same is true for the Silver State.
“You can’t win Nevada unless you turn out Latino voters in significant numbers on a statewide basis. … You just can’t,” he said.
Five days until Election Day, it remains an open question whether Latinos will show up in the numbers needed to get Democrats over the finish line. And whether the community will be even more motivated to vote as President Donald Trump ramps up the anti-immigrant rhetoric.
What to Watch in the Final Stretch of the Arizona Senate Race
Whatever narrow shot Democrats have of winning the Senate would be impossible without picking up Arizona and Nevada.
In Arizona, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema is taking on her Republican House colleague Martha McSally for the state’s open Senate seat. In Nevada, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen is hoping to unseat GOP incumbent Dean Heller. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates both races Toss-ups.
Both Rosen and Sinema have sought to win over Latino voters through targeted outreach, including Spanish-language television and digital ads. Rosen had a 9-point advantage in Latino voter support in a New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll conducted this month. Sinema had a 47-point advantage among Latino voters surveyed in a recent NBC News/Marist poll.
The Democratic parties in both Arizona and Nevada have focused part of their ground games on Latino voters, opening field offices in Hispanic neighborhoods and hiring Spanish-speaking organizers.
Republicans say they have also been working on Latino outreach. Heller’s campaign touted “Juntos con Heller,” a group of more than 250 Latino supporters, which the senator’s team billed as the largest coalition ever assembled by a Senate campaign.
Wadi Gaitan, the Nevada press secretary for the Libre Initiative, said the Koch brothers-affiliated group was also engaged on the ground, with roughly 20 volunteers knocking on doors each week. While it can’t advocate a specific candidate, Gaitan said it was targeting voters who were “aligned on tax reform, on immigration and on education.”
“We are not a community that just votes by party,” he said.
Latinos make up 19 percent of eligible voters in Nevada and 23 percent in Arizona, according to the Pew Research Center. Exit polls from 2016 put the Latino portion of that year’s electorate at 18 percent in Nevada and 15 percent in Arizona. Turnout is expected to be lower this year without a presidential election driving people to the polls.
To counter that, grassroots groups are trying to head off that traditional midterm drop-off with their own efforts.
“Everybody wants the Latino vote, but nobody wants to go talk to them right?” LUCHA spokeswoman Abril Gallardo Ververa said in the group’s office last week. “I think grassroots groups like LUCHA and other organizations really took upon themselves to [say] like, ‘Well, if nobody’s going to go in, that’s our members, that’s our people, we need to go.’”
On the ground
In the LUCHA office, Pizarro’s team role-played interactions at the door, telling a pretend voter that Democratic gubernatorial nominee David Garcia will improve education and immigration and that Sinema voted to protect Arizonans’ health care.
LUCHA is part of the “Mi AZ” coalition, which is focused on educating and turning out Latino voters. Ricardo Zamudio Guillen, the coalition’s co-field director, said by Election Day, its 200 volunteers will have knocked on roughly 1.5 million doors throughout the state.
“Those are numbers that we’ve never seen before,” he said.
Gallego has seen evidence of increased Latino voter engagement this year. (He noted that canvassers have knocked on his own door four times).
Arizona organizers say the effort has been building for years, particularly since the passage of SB 1070, the state’s controversial 2010 immigration law. In the midterm election prior to the law passing, Latino voters accounted for 9 percent of the electorate. In 2014, that number rose to 17 percent, according to One Arizona.
Democrats in Nevada are bolstered by the influential Culinary Workers Union, a majority of whose members are Latino. The group has developed an effective turnout operation and expects to have 300 canvassers on the ground in the final days of the election.
While Democratic organizers in both states say consistent contacts with Latino voters are key to boosting turnout, they know they are up against a number of barriers.
At an early voting event in Phoenix with Sinema last month, Tolleson Mayor Anna Tovar pointed to the fear in the community, especially when SB 1070 was signed into law, and long-held impressions by Latino voters that their votes didn’t matter.
Gallego said Latino voters also skewed younger, and younger voters turn out at lower rates. A lengthy ballot in Arizona, complete with with initiatives and judicial elections, could turn some of them off, he added.
Still, Democrats might be encouraged by early ballot returns. Ten percent of the early ballots in Arizona returned as of Wednesday afternoon have been from people who have never before voted in a general election. (Republicans, though, hold a 9-point advantage in returns.) In Nevada, Democrats have an edge in early ballots, 42 percent to 39 percent over Republicans, with 20 percent cast by unaffiliated voters.
Organizers on the ground sense increased energy, particularly among Latino voters, and attribute it in part to Trump and his rhetoric.
“Definitely Latino families feel under attack,” Viridian Vidal, the Nevada director for immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, said in Las Vegas last month.
“Just like a few weeks ago, we saw an ad in favor of Dean Heller portraying Latinos as gang members. And we know that’s not who we are,” she said. Vidal appeared to be referring to an ad from the Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC that cannot coordinate with Heller’s campaign.
Mi AZ’s Zamudio Guillen said the president was not the only factor energizing Latinos, also citing rising health care prices and stagnant wages. And he said having more Latinos running for office, including Arizona’s Garcia, could help inspire turnout.
“I think that itself is telling of where Arizona’s going,” he said. “And there’s really no way to stop it.”