Experts attribute issues to Latino voters. Is it time to quit the practice?

SAN ANTONIO – Will Latinos Go Nevada Red? Are Democrats Losing Hispanic Voters?

Those were among the driving questions leading up to the midterm on Latino voters. The election results show that the answers are, in order, no and some.

“I think the conventional wisdom during the election was wrong. Every media story, national media story, was that Hispanics were moving toward Republicans,” said Jason Villalba, board chairman and CEO of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, a centrist think tank.

As exceptional races have begun to be called, Democrats are seeing that Latinos have not abandoned them and in several cases have been instrumental in their victories. But they were reminded that Latinos brand loyalty is not a given.

Most Democrats still won majority support from Latinos in this election, while some Republican candidates won larger shares of support from Latinos than in previous elections.

“Republicans didn’t have as good a night as they thought they would. Democrats didn’t have as bad an evening as they thought they were going to,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, vice president of the Latino Vote Initiative at UnidosUS, a civil rights and advocacy group.

“But the Latinos had a good night because they reaffirmed the decisive role they play for both sides,” he said.

Latino voters have long had election-related issues. Some years, it was, “Will the sleeping giant wake up?” In others, “Will Latinos be the Democrats’ blue wall?” In this election, “Are Latinos Going Red?”

The 2022 results show again that there is a need to make room for more than one issue in an election.

Where Democrats have seen solid support

Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto’s victory won control of the Senate for Democrats; 62 percent of Latinas voted for her, NBC News exit polls show.

In Arizona, where Democratic Senator Mark Kelly beat Republican Blake Masters, 58% of Latinos supported Kelly. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who said he would get more than half of the Hispanic votes in Texas, finished with 40%, 2% less than in his last election.

In Pennsylvania, 68% of Latinos voted for Democrat John Fetterman, who beat Republican Mehmet Oz, in the Senate race, and 72% voted for Democrat Josh Shapiro, who won the gubernatorial race over the Republican Doug Mastriano.

Republicans have made solid gains and support from Latinos in Florida, helping Governor Ron DeSantis win re-election with 58% of the Latino vote and flipping Miami-Dade County.

A “true” GOP change, but more widespread

Republicans also saw narrower Latino voting margins in congressional races, including in South Texas, where they tried to win three congressional seats but ended up with one, and in California. Both sides are sending several new Latinos to Congress.

“The change that happened was sustained and real,” GOP adviser Mike Madrid said of Latino support for Republican candidates. “This new Hispanic national baseline is in the 2030s, and that’s a pretty remarkable turn of events in the face of either a strong year for Democrats or a bad year for Republicans.”

Gabe Sanchez, vice president of research at BSP Research, a Democratic polling firm, said Republican outreach has helped significantly reduce perceptions that the GOP is hostile towards Latinos. That helped create a “bridge opportunity” with Latino voters, said Sanchez, also a University of New Mexico political science professor.

But Sanchez said Republicans’ failed assumptions that tackling inflation and the cost of living were crucial to getting Latino votes. Data from the BSP showed that voters weren’t as angry about their economic situation as they were in previous elections and weren’t directing that anger at Biden.

“It was rife. It was Biden and the Democrats. It was the wealthy CEOs who were making big profits, especially oil and gas. For the Democrats it wasn’t all like the point of the spear the way the Republicans thought it was going to be, and that it was a failed opportunity to talk to Latinos about a wider range of issues,” he said.

Villalba said that while he has seen a rightward shift among Latinos, “the pace at which it’s happening is leveling off.”

Republicans went after Latinos in a big way in South Texas. But movement to the right there in 2020 with Donald Trump on the ballot has slowed, he said. Republicans made a multi-million dollar investment in three congressional districts in South Texas and lost two.

“Republicans in 2018 and 2020 dumped massive amounts of resources in Texas. What’s its purpose? They ended up taking a seat they couldn’t have lost because a Republican was expected to win,” Villalba said.

The raw data shows GOP increases in Latino votes in the “flat” or “very, very anemic” state compared to 2020.

It’s easier for Democrats to rest on their laurels, but if the Supreme Court hadn’t overturned the historic Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion nationwide, “we might have a very different conversation,” said Sanchez, who is also a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

History ignored?

The complexity and unpredictability of what many still try to define as the “Latino vote” mirrors what has been happening in the Hispanic electorate for more than a decade.

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas, noted that Latinos have been here first in terms of their share of the Republican vote. George W. Bush was elected with 35% of the Latino vote and did even better by being re-elected with 40% of the Latino vote.

And Florida voters have long been Republican voters, Soto said. That diversity had been forgotten because for some election cycles, Republicans renounced Latinos, not doing the same, she said.

Since the early 2000s, hundreds of thousands of Latinos have turned 18 every year, so the electorate has not only added more young people, but it has also grown.

Those who were 18 for the 2008 election, the year Barack Obama was elected president with the help of historic Latino voter turnout, would have been 32 in this year’s election.

For many voters, their priorities change during that time. Much of the conservative change seen in Hispanics is with those 60 and older, and older voters are often better at showing up than younger voters. This midterm, 36 percent of Latinos who voted voted in their first midterm, said Martinez de Castro, of UnidosUS.

“What the experts get wrong is assuming Latinos are a grassroots vote that will act a certain way, regardless of environment or outreach,” Martinez de Castro said, or “in terms of what issues to talk or not talk to them about it. And then when the sensitization happens, it happens at the last minute.”

“There are takeaway lessons here,” Martinez de Castro said, “for Democrats and Republicans.”

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