Democrats fear lack­lus­ter Latino sup­port could un­der­cut bid for Congress

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY SEAN SULLIVAN AND MIKE DEBO­NIS sean.sullivan@wash­post.com mike.debo­nis@wash­post.com Jenna John­son con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Democrats are wor­ried about Latino vot­ers in the midterms, fear­ing that weak ef­forts to en­er­gize a core el­e­ment of their base could im­peril their bid to win con­trol of Congress in next month’s elec­tions.

From the Sun Belt bat­tle­grounds of Ne­vada and Ari­zona to sprawl­ing turf wars in Texas and Florida, there are signs that the His­panic vote — which party lead­ers have long hoped would be the foun­da­tion of fu­ture elec­toral suc­cess — has yet to flour­ish in their fa­vor this year.

Al­though Pres­i­dent Trump and Repub­li­cans have em­braced poli­cies and rhetoric hos­tile to­ward Latino im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing fresh plans un­der con­sid­er­a­tion to sep­a­rate mi­grant fam­i­lies at the bor­der, Democrats have strug­gled to gen­er­ate en­thu­si­asm for their can­di­dates in some His­panic com­mu­ni­ties.

Demo­cratic strate­gists and of­fi­cials have pointed fin­gers at fel­low Democrats, blam­ing con­gres­sional cam­paigns and al­lied groups for fail­ing to en­gage Latino vot­ers strongly enough as they place a heavy em­pha­sis on win­ning white, mid­dle-class vot­ers in sub­ur­ban swing ar­eas.

In some races, stronger-thanex­pected Repub­li­can ap­peals to His­panic vot­ers have com­pli­cated mat­ters fur­ther for Democrats, leav­ing them scram­bling to com­pete in di­verse ar­eas key to de­ter­min­ing which party con­trols the Se­nate and House.

“We’re at a very unique time in our po­lit­i­cal space be­cause of Don­ald Trump, and if we miss this op­por­tu­nity now, we may never get this op­por­tu­nity again,” said Chuck Rocha, a Demo­cratic strate­gist con­sult­ing with ma­jor Latino or­ga­ni­za­tions. “And it keeps me awake at night.”

Democrats are try­ing to re­take con­trol of the Se­nate, which Repub­li­cans hold by a slim 51-to-49 ad­van­tage. Three of their best chances to flip seats are in states with fast-grow­ing His­panic pop­u­la­tions: Texas, Ne­vada and Ari­zona. They are de­fend­ing a swing seat in Florida, an­other state with a siz­able His­panic pop­u­la­tion.

In Texas, Repub­li­can Sen. Ted Cruz is try­ing to fend off Demo­cratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a lib­eral star who raised an eye-pop­ping $38.1 mil­lion in the past three months, mak­ing him one of the most suc­cess­ful fundrais­ers in his­tory.

O’Rourke, who is white, speaks Span­ish and has of­ten switched lan­guages dur­ing town halls. He has used the tra­di­tion­ally His­panic nick­name Beto for decades, rather than his birth name, Robert. But Texas has proved to be a chal­leng­ing place for Democrats to mo­bi­lize His­panic vot­ers. “That is a very hard thing to change in one cam­paign cy­cle,” said Matt Bar­reto, a co-founder of the re­search and polling firm Latino De­ci­sions.

Cruz has long been one of his party’s most vo­cal ad­vo­cates of a strict im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy. Still, a Quin­nip­iac Uni­ver­sity poll showed him win­ning 37 per­cent of His­panic vot­ers, a slightly higher share than Trump won in the state in 2016, ac­cord­ing to exit polls. Over­all, Cruz led O’Rourke by nine points in the sur­vey.

Cruz re­leased a Span­ish-lan­guage on­line ad­ver­tise­ment Fri­day fea­tur­ing his fa­ther talk­ing about flee­ing Cuba. Repub­li­cans, mean­while, are hop­ing that GOP Gov. Greg Ab­bott’s stand­ing with His­panic vot­ers will help. Ab­bott, whose wife is His­panic, is a heavy fa­vorite to win re­elec­tion. He cap­tured 44 per­cent of the Latino vote in 2014, and his cam­paign is aim­ing to top that this year.

Be­yond their share of the vote, Democrats are con­cerned about to­tal His­panic turnout in Texas, a con­ser­va­tive state where they will need their most loyal sup­port­ers to cast bal­lots in huge num­bers to have a chance of an up­set.

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Rep. Joaquin Cas­tro (D-Tex.), who said he has had long-stand­ing con­cerns about or­ga­ni­za­tional ef­forts in the Rio Grande Val­ley, along the bor­der with Mex­ico.

Democrats are more con­fi­dent about turn­ing out His­panic vot­ers in Ne­vada, where Harry M. Reid built an im­pos­ing po­lit­i­cal ma­chine when he was Demo­cratic Se­nate leader and ag­gres­sively courted Latino sup­port.

Rep. Jacky Rosen, the Demo­cratic Se­nate nom­i­nee in a close race against Repub­li­can Sen. Dean Heller, has run six Span­ish­language TV ads, touch­ing on fam­ily sepa­ra­tions and health­care pro­tec­tions, among other things.

Demo­cratic strate­gists said they have sensed that His­panic Amer­i­cans are fired up about the elec­tion and an­gry about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies on im­mi­gra­tion and health care. But many are new to vot­ing and need more out­reach from the cam­paigns about who the can­di­dates are and what they stand for.

In Ari­zona, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has given Democrats a real chance of win­ning their first Se­nate race in three decades, as she takes on Rep. Martha McSally in an open-seat con­test. But there are wor­ries in the state about the party’s out­reach to His­panic vot­ers.

“It al­ways has to be more ro­bust,” said Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee­man Luis Here­dia. “As cam­paigns are build­ing out their plans, they don’t spend enough time think­ing about ways to com­mu­ni­cate with Latino vot­ers, who are more frag­mented.” He added: “There’s not enough be­ing done.”

Democrats are be­com­ing more en­cour­aged about hold­ing Florida, where Sen. Bill Nel­son (D) is try­ing to turn back a chal­lenge from Gov. Rick Scott (R), who has in­vested more in Latino sup­port than most Repub­li­cans have.

But Nel­son has drawn some Demo­cratic com­plaints. He should have started sooner, said Jose Parra, a for­mer ad­viser to Reid, “in­stead of try­ing to play catch up right now be­cause Scott de­cided to play on Nel­son’s side of the field.”

Demo­cratic strate­gists said His­panic vot­ers, who al­ready side heav­ily with their party, tend to en­gage later in the cam­paign, and they ex­pect to con­sol­i­date their sup­port as Elec­tion Day draws near.

In House races, Democrats have been fo­cused on turnout in sub­ur­ban swing dis­tricts, where many vot­ers are white and have voted be­fore. Some in the party worry that Lati­nos are be­ing over­looked in the broader strat­egy.

“They need to ap­proach low­propen­sity Latino vot­ers with the same level of en­thu­si­asm with which they’re ap­proach­ing white sub­ur­ban women,” said Baretto.

Of the 35 con­gres­sional dis­tricts where 2014 cen­sus data in­di­cated that Lati­nos made up at least a third of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers, Repub­li­cans hold seven seats. And while all seven are Demo­cratic tar­gets in Novem­ber, polling and in­de­pen­dent fore­cast­ers in­di­cate that Democrats may have a tough time pick­ing up most of them.

They in­clude a cen­tral Mi­ami dis­trict where Demo­crat Donna Sha­lala, a for­mer Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­re­tary in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, is strug­gling to break away from Maria Elvira Salazar, a Cuban Amer­i­can and for­mer tele­vi­sion an­chor. The open seat should be a slam dunk for Democrats; Hil­lary Clin­ton won the dis­trict in 2016 by nearly 20 per­cent­age points. In South Texas, GOP Rep. Will Hurd is show­ing re­silience against Demo­cratic chal­lenger Gina Or­tiz-Jones, a for­mer CIA op­er­a­tive.

The ef­fort to turn out Demo­cratic votes in Latino com­mu­ni­ties is be­ing led by the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, which for the first time is helmed by a Latino chair­man, Rep. Ben Ray Lu­ján (N.M.), and a Latino ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Dan Sena. The group has set aside $30 mil­lion to turn out base vot­ers, who in­clude Lati­nos along­side African Amer­i­cans, Asians, women and mil­len­ni­als.

The DCCC has been hon­ing its out­reach since the 2016 elec­tions, us­ing a se­ries of spe­cial elec­tions to per­fect its mes­sages — de­liv­ered via broad­cast me­dia, mail, text mes­sage and so­cial net­works — that it hopes will per­suade vot­ers who are un­ac­cus­tomed to show­ing up in midterms to vote.

A com­ing dig­i­tal cam­paign is tar­geted at vot­ers un­der 40, fea­tur­ing mes­sen­gers with lo­cal ca­chet — a pas­tor, for in­stance, or a sports coach — who can speak with more cred­i­bil­ity to po­ten­tial Latino vot­ers.

Repub­li­cans have re­solved not to cede His­panic vot­ers to Democrats. The lead­ing House Repub­li­can su­per PAC, the Con­gres­sional Lead­er­ship Fund, has so far aired Span­ish-lan­guage com­mer­cials in more dis­tricts than has its Demo­cratic coun­ter­part, the House Ma­jor­ity PAC.

Few cam­paigns have been able to har­ness the en­ergy of O’Rourke’s bid in Texas, which has at­tracted large crowds and dona­tions from across the coun­try.

Demo­cratic Rep. File­mon Vela, who rep­re­sents a South Texas dis­trict where nearly 60 per­cent of the el­i­gi­ble elec­torate is Latino, said he has been im­pressed by O’Rourke’s ef­forts in his area. But he said he was un­cer­tain whether his shoe-leather cam­paign would trans­late into a surge of Latino votes.

“Is he go­ing to get over­whelm­ing His­panic sup­port at the polls on Nov. 6? That is for cer­tain,” Vela said. “The big­ger ques­tion is, will the Trump pres­i­dency and the ex­cite­ment of his cam­paign bring the in­crease in the Latino vote that we long waited for, and that’s a much more dif­fi­cult ques­tion.”

JOE RAE­DLE/GETTY IMAGES

Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­date Donna Sha­lala at­tends a protest by work­ers at Mi­ami In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Oct. 2. The Florida dis­trict sup­ported Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016, but Sha­lala is fac­ing strong com­pe­ti­tion from Repub­li­can Maria Elvira Salazar.

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