In every election cycle in the last two decades Latinos have offered enticing promises of voting power that could transform the nation’s political landscape, and in every cycle Democrats and Republicans and allied activists go after the Hispanic base with alacrity, flaunting electoral and policy advances and visions of greater political muscle. Despite all the drum beating, Latino turnout at the ballot box consistently falls behind expectations.
This year could be different.
This is the year of Trump. For nearly 12 months Trump has knocked Latinos around, calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug traffickers and threatening to build a fortress wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deport some 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, about half of whom are Mexican. Most recently, he has been under fire for calling the U.S. federal judge presiding over the Trump University case "Mexican" and saying that he is biased because of his heritage.
Trump's incendiary rhetoric is igniting many of the nation’s 55 million Latinos. Trump is a galvanizing force, sparking a new sense of urgency, driving young Latinos to mount increasingly vocal protests. Ahead of Tuesday's California primary, for example, reports show that Latinos are registering at higher numbers than either of the last two presidential general elections.
Democrats are not the only Hispanics shirking Trump. Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, the nation's only Latina governor and a prominent Republican of Mexican-American heritage, refused to attend Trump’s rally and stand by his side, a major snub that made headlines nationally. As is his habit, Trump retaliated with a public diatribe calling her incompetent and punching back at the demonstrators, tweeting, “The protesters in New Mexico are thugs who were flying the Mexican flag.”
The anti-Trump fury is a gift to the Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, who is inching closer to securing the Democratic presidential nomination.
New Latino candidates are stepping up and running for congressional seats from Florida, California and Texas, states with large Hispanic populations. Leading the pack are two Democratic women running for the U.S. Senate: Catherine Cortez Masto, a former two-term Nevada attorney general, and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., a 20-year House veteran. This has potential historic implications: Cortez Masto or Sanchez or both could become the first Latinas elected to the mostly white, mostly male U.S. Senate.
But there are bumps. The Hispanic electorate, with a projected 27.3 million eligible voters this year, has consistently underperformed in past cycles. Fewer than half of the eligible Latino voters cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential election.
Though Latinos are seen incorrectly as a solid Democratic bloc, the GOP has elected more Latino candidates to major office: Martinez of New Mexico, the first Latina governor; Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada; Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the first two Hispanics to have had a real chance at a presidential nomination.
Now the challenge falls to Cortez Masto and Sanchez.
Sanchez, 56, has the tougher road. She’s running against Kamala Harris in a contest that pits two Democratic minority women against one another. Harris, 50, a daughter of immigrants -- her mother is from India, her father from Jamaica -- has carved out a prominent niche as the first female attorney general of California. Sanchez, who represents conservative Orange County, has strong Latino backing, but Harris is popular among minorities, too, and is leading in the polls.
They are No. 1 and No. 2 among 34 candidates of both parties vying for retiring Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat in the June 7 primary. Due to California election rules, the top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation will face each other in November. That probably means Harris and Sanchez meeting in one of the most consequential campaigns this unpredictable year, pitting a widely admired African-American-Asian against a prominent Latina.
As for Nevada, Cortez Masto is expected to win her primary next week. She has been more mired in the tight race for the Senate against Republican Congressman Joe Heck. Though their November contest doesn’t quite deliver the same knockout punch of the Harris-Sanchez match, Cortez Masto’s victory would make political history all the same.
On a phone interview from Las Vegas, Cortez Masto talked quietly about her grandfather, a boy from the state of Chihuahua in northwest Mexico who braved the border crossing along the New Mexico line, went on to meet the woman who became his wife in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and made the trek west to Las Vegas, where his granddaughter, Catherine Marie Cortez, was born in 1964.
That familiar immigrant story seems rooted in Cortez Masto and drives her commitment to low-income and middle-class families, minorities, equal education, raising the minimum wage and immigration reform. Her message of equal pay, equal jobs, and reform is a potent political weapon in a state where Latinos make up 26 percent of a population of 2.7 million, African Americans 8 percent and Asian Americans 7 percent.
When asked what she’ll do when she gets to Capitol Hill, she said, “I want to bring their voices to the table and to be a mirror of the people I represent across this country.”
Her victory would come against the odds. Republicans occupy three of Nevada’s four U.S. House seats, one of its two U.S. Senate seats, the governor’s mansion, and the state Senate and state Assembly. But Cortez Masto seemed unfazed. She counts on Latino and African-American support and her anti-Trump message. Fighting for all that is what she knows. “I’ve done it all my life.”
Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, a journalist and professor at Fordham University, is a former editor at The New York Times, political columnist, and book author. She lives in New York City.