Politics

Record Gains by Latinos Contradict Narrative

Trump’s 2016 victory overshadowed congressional victories

From left, Reps. Adriano Espaillat of New York and Ruben Kihuen of Nevada are the first formerly undocumented members of Congress. Also seen, Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, right, and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, second from left. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump’s victory last year was widely understood to challenge predictions of a coming surge in Democratic-leaning Latino voters that would forever alter the American electorate. 

But as Latino political leaders kick off National Hispanic Heritage Month this week, some are pointing to Congress to argue that Trump’s win was an anomaly. 

As Trump was celebrating his success with white working-class voters, nine congressional districts and Puerto Rico welcomed new Latino lawmakers. Six of them — all but one of them Democrats — replaced white or African-American incumbents.

“While we lost at the top of the ticket, the untold story of the election was the dramatic increase in Latino participation rates that allowed for a record number of Latinos to be elected to office,” said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, an outreach group backed by Democratic activists, and the national deputy director of voter outreach and mobilization for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “There are bright spots.”

In the Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada became the country’s first Latina senator. Her historic win was heralded as a “silver lining” in an otherwise bleak year for Hispanic liberals. The new members added to a growing number of Latinos in Congress, who are slowly becoming more diverse.

The number of Hispanic members in the 115th Congress — 41 — is more than double than what it was 20 years ago. 

In addition to Cortez Masto, whose grandfather immigrated from Mexico, new Hispanic members included Democrats Adriano Espaillat of New York, the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, and Darren Soto, the first Puerto Rican to represent Florida in the House. The other members who took seats previously occupied by non-Latinos were Democrats Ruben Kihuen of Nevada, and California’s Nanette Barragán and Salud Carbajal, and Republican Brian Mast of Florida. 

Watch: Members Talk About Their Hispanic Heritage

Kihuen and Espaillat are the first formerly undocumented members to serve in Congress.

When those members talk about policy issues affecting Latinos, they can also draw on their own lives and families.

“I don’t let that pass me by, the fact that I have a grandfather who came from Chihuahua, Mexico,” Cortez Masto said in an interview. “I don’t forget that. Because there are many families who want the same opportunity, and that’s what this is about. Making sure that I’m tearing down those barriers to help those families as well.”

Kihuen, whose parents immigrated from Mexico when he was 8, talked about their decision to sacrifice their careers as schoolteachers to give him a better life.

“We didn’t come here with a lot of money,” he said in an interview. “We didn’t have a lot of contacts.” 

His family’s story also reflects the demographic changes in Nevada, where they eventually settled after his father received a promotion from a job picking strawberries in California, he said. 

“Our family was not the only family looking to migrate to a state that had a lot of growth, a lot of job opportunities,” he said. 

Electoral gains by Latinos have yet to match their proportions in the population. And even though the number of eligible Latino voters has grown exponentially in recent years, their turnout at the polls has been lower than other groups.

That’s partly because almost half of the 27.3 million Latinos eligible to cast ballots are millennials — an age cohort notoriously difficult to engage in elections. Latino organizers also blame both parties, which they say have failed to invest in voter engagement on the ground. Latino voters are also underrepresented in presidential elections because their electoral college votes are concentrated in the handful of states where their population is largest.

The Hispanic population’s inability to realize their full potential at the polls has some questioning whether they ever will. 

“We are arriving at a do-or-die moment for Latino politics,” said Roberto Suro, a professor of journalism and public policy at at the University of Southern California and the former director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “The idea that there is a powerful rising political force that has a coherent agenda, and that requires attention from national leaders … has been battered so much over, now, several years that continued battering is going to have to raise questions as to whether it’s a meaningful concept.”

But others counsel patience. Generational change takes time, they say. The Latino surge might start as a trickle. 

And 2018 represents another opportunity: Latinos make up more than 20 percent of the eligible voters in 10 out of 62 House races deemed competitive by Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales, according to a Roll Call analysis.

“If you are waiting for the switch to turn on overnight, that’s not going to happen,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a senior analyst at Latino Decisions, a political opinion research firm. “You will see gradual increases in turnout. The second and third generation will be more engaged than their parents and grandparents.”

Elusive voters

The majority of 2016 post-mortems focused on Trump’s ability to speak to overlooked white working-class voters, partly by cashing in on fears that immigrants illegally crossing the Mexican border were taking American jobs. Those analyses also highlighted Clinton’s lackluster performance among Latinos and the early exit polls’ surprising indication that Trump had outperformed 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney in that demographic — in spite of campaign rhetoric characterizing some Mexicans as “rapists.”

But some Latino organizers say those analyses are misleading. The Latino Victory Project disputed the early exit polls. Together with BlueLabs, a data analytics company founded by alumni of the Obama campaign, they conducted their own analysis of individual-level data from the national voter file.

They found that Latino turnout was higher in 2016 than 2012 —  58 percent versus 54 percent. They also found that 28 percent of the 2016 turnout among Latinos came from first-time voters, compared to 15 percent for African-Americans and 16 percent for whites. Those numbers are particularly high in some states with growing Latino populations, such as Georgia, North Carolina and Illinois, that have only recently emerged as Latino recruiting grounds. 

“That’s the future,” said Alex of the Latino Victory Project. “Those are the new battleground states, and those are Latino states.”

Latino organizers say Trump’s performance in office, including his insistence on constructing a wall along the Mexican border and his commission to investigate voter fraud, could present an opportunity to energize new Latino voters in 2018 and 2020 — although Trump’s recent backtracking on plans to repeal an Obama-era amnesty program for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children has some in his base questioning where he really stands on immigration. 

“He could prove to be the biggest Latino organizer of all time,” Alex said. 

Untapped opportunities

Some Republicans also see an untapped resource in Latino voters.

“There is this notion that Hispanics are unwinnable by the Republican Party,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the New American Economy, a bipartisan coalition of business leaders that advocates an immigration overhaul. “That has been proven false over and over.”

After Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012 — a dramatic drop from President George W. Bush’s 40 percent in 2004 — the Republican National Committee concluded that the party needed to expand its reach to Latino voters and embrace a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

Trump has disregarded much of those recommendations. But his successful strategy of appealing to white, working-class voters will likely become outdated quickly, Robbins said. White voters are shrinking as a proportion of the electorate, and the percentage without a college education is also going down, he said. 

“Ignoring Hispanic voters going forward is an extremely dangerous political strategy,” he said. 

A few Republican groups and donors, including the deep-pocketed Koch brothers, have embraced outreach to Latinos.

The LIBRE initiative, a Koch brothers’ funded nonprofit, has received millions in contributions since its founding in 2011. They offer English classes throughout the country, citizenship classes in Miami, and drivers’ education classes in Nevada.

“What that does is help us connect with the community,”said Daniel Garza, LIBRE’s president. As elections draw nearer, they will also recruit volunteers for door-to-door outreach, he said. 

Garza said down-ballot races in 2016 showed that voters would judge candidates they trust separately from Trump, and that candidates don’t have to be of Hispanic heritage to represent the Latino values of their constituents. He also said Democrats were mistaken to assume that Latinos will automatically lean toward liberal candidates who support an immigration overhaul.

“I think you will crash and burn if it’s just about social values,” he said. “If you are someone who reaches out and engages Latinos on all the issues you engage on with all other Americans, you are going to go further.”

He pointed to Colorado Republican Cory Gardner, who campaigned in Latino neighborhoods in his 2014 Senate run, focusing on job creation and smaller government. Gardner won with 48 percent of the Latino vote, according to a LIBRE analysis, the same percentage as Mark Udall, the incumbent Democrat he unseated. The number is striking, considering that just four years earlier, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet winning 65 percent of that demographic was considered notable.

“People thought the Latino vote was baked in” for Democrats, Garza said. “Cory Gardner proved them wrong.”

Some analysts, though, said the potential gains for Republicans among Latinos are limited.

“Most of the under-45 Latinos are pretty liberal, so they are selling a message out there that doesn’t have much resonance,” Damore of the University of Nevada said.

But Damore and others said Democrats have also failed to invest in the Latino vote.

“If you talk to white political consultants in D.C. on the Democratic side, thy will tell you not to spend any money on Latino voters because Latinos vote at such low rates,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions and a professor of political science and Chicana/o studies at UCLA. “That creates a cycle of undermobilization in which Latinos get less outreach, so they vote at lower rates, and white consultants say they vote at lower rates, so they don’t give them any outreach.”

Slow progress 

Recent victories for Latino candidates also create a challenge for coming years, because the number of seats in Hispanic majority areas that are not occupied by Latino candidates is shrinking, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. 

“If you want to make a significant increase in the number of Latinos in the House, you will need crossover candidates,” he said. “They will have to appeal to broad constituencies. This is not happening enough.” 

He said both parties — but particularly the Democrats — have done a poor job grooming Latino candidates in regions not traditionally considered Hispanic. And they are also neglecting early groundwork in districts with strong Latino populations that they should easily win. 

That’s an opinion shared by Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a nonpartisan Latino voter participation group active in 14 states. She said she has yet to see strong ground operations by Democrats in many of areas. 

“Why do Democrats keep insisting certain districts aren’t worth their time and effort?” she said. “The Latino electorate does vote, in spite of what people say.”

Jason Dick contributed to this report.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.