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Calls, caravans, cartoons: Groups target Georgia Latinos ahead of Senate runoffs

There has never been a runoff in Georgia where turnout has not been cut by about 40 percent, says political scientist Bernard Fraga. Latino groups are working to boost turnout.
Image: Democratic Senate Candidate Jon Ossoff Campaigns In Kennesaw, GA
Rachel Lomas passes out coloring flyers in her truck featuring a neon Stacey Abrams "Vote" sign during a rally for Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff on Dec. 3, 2020 in Kennesaw, Ga.Jessica McGowan / Getty Images

The upcoming runoff elections in Georgia have led to an all hands on deck atmosphere targeting the sliver of Latino voters in a state where races can be won by thin margins.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro will be on the ground in Georgia next week. The Florida group Boricuas for Biden is helping a lawmaker in Georgia find Puerto Rican voters. National Latino progressive groups like Mijente have sent canvassers and harnessed comic book heroes and characters, while groups in place for years have called for more investment to reinforce their work engaging Latinos.

They are all in the state for the Jan. 5 runoffs that will not only determine which party controls the U.S. Senate, but also how successful president-elect Joe Biden will be in executing his agenda.

Just this week, Democrat Deborah Gonzalez became the first Latina elected to one of Georgia's district attorney positions, winning her race by about 866 votes, according to unofficial results.

Republican incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were forced into runoffs with Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the Nov. 3 general election, in which president-elect Joe Biden won the traditionally Republican state.

President Donald Trump will hold a rally Saturday with the Republican candidates, a day after former President Barack Obama and Vice President Mike Pence participated in events to drum up support for their parties' candidates.

Castro, the only major Latino presidential candidate in 2020, is joining Ossoff and Warnock Monday in time to make one last push for eligible Latinos to register before Monday evening’s deadline, then campaigning in the state through Tuesday.

“Young voters and voters of color are powering our victories across the country, and nowhere else is that more evident than Georgia,” said Castro, who has contributed to Latino groups in the state through his People First Future political action committee and helped Stacey Abrams in her 2018 campaign.

About 270,000 Georgia Latinos are registered to vote, although there are ongoing efforts to sign up more of the approximately 377,000 who are eligible.

Latino Decisions, a national polling firm, estimates at least 185,000 Latinos voted in Georgia on Nov. 3.

Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who served as a political adviser to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, said the number of Latinos registered with no party preference is double the about 50,000 registered in each party.

Rocha is trying to help out Latino groups on the ground through Nuestro PAC, the political action committee he formed to boost Latino outreach during the general election. The committee spent about $9 million in six states on engaging Latinos during the general election, Rocha said.

The PAC will begin running a Spanish language radio ad on Monday that features a character confused about having to request another ballot after November's election—and Trump's loss in Georgia.

“What the groups I’m coordinating with on the ground are finding is that Latinos are confused why they need to come back and vote again,” he said. His ad will tell Latinos they need to request ballots again and show up to vote for Warnock and Osoff “or we won’t get Covid under control, a minimum wage hike and comprehensive immigration reform.”

The challenge of getting people to vote again

The potential of voters not returning to vote in January is great, said Bernard Fraga, a political science associate professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

In runoffs held over the last 30 years, turnout for Georgia has dropped by at least 40 percent from the general election that preceded it, said Fraga, author of “The Turnout Gap: Race Ethnicity and Political Equity in a Diversifying America”.

In Georgia’s 2018 runoff for secretary of state, 62 percent of general election voters did not return for the runoff, including 80 percent of Latino voters, 75 percent of voters of Asian descent, 64 percent of African Americans and 60 percent of white voters, according to Fraga’s analysis of Georgia Secretary of State numbers.

Those numbers show the electorate became more white and it will happen again without significant mobilization efforts, Fraga said. Young voters are hard to turn out in any election and those that turned out to cast an anti-Trump vote may be less inclined to vote in the runoff if he is not on the ticket, Fraga said.

State Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, D-Norcross, said she does not expect the same level of drop-off in voters, particularly if there is investment in turning them out. Even though they are not a large part of the electorate, they're important in a state where elections have been won by thin margins.

Lopez said she was seeing limited outreach from the candidates and while millions of dollars are being put into the state, the money isn’t going to mobilizing Latinos.

"The reason you’ve seen a spike in the growth of Latino voters has been because of the work the last 10 to 20 years of local non-profits,” said Lopez, pointing out groups like the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, the Latino Community Fund, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and this year’s newcomer, PODER Latinx. The Coalition of Latino Leaders in Dalton has also been working to engage voters as it has grown.

Larger national Latino groups such as Mijente and Mi Familia Vota have canvassers on the ground in the state.

MFV announced it has 30 canvassers and is averaging 1.33 voter registrations an hour. They are planning 500,000 phone calls, 50,000 mailers, 1 million text messages, 40,000 door knocks and a radio and digital campaign. The group said it is partnering with local groups and also working with the national group Hispanic Federation.

The conservative group LIBRE Action, the political arm of LIBRE Initiative, also is working the state in support of Perdue, said president Daniel Garza. LIBRE is sending in teams from out of state to buttress its in-state staff. He said the numbers of doors they will knock on will be in the tens of thousands.

"I think the crux of the issue here is to get as many people who are aligned to turn out," Garza said. "We know through past voting patterns the affinity people have shown on conservative issues and free market society issues."

For Democrats, some of the help is coming from next door. Ahead of the general election, Natascha Otero Santiago started Boricuas con Biden in Florida, a grassroots group that targeted Puerto Ricans in that state, where they overwhelmingly voted for Biden.

The volunteer group grew to about 8,500 people, operating “boricua to boricua” phone banks and held “mofongo” (a popular Puerto Rican plantain dish) talks that featured high-profile Puerto Ricans such as Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., and Nellie Gorbea, Rhode Island Secretary of State. The group also organized Puerto Rican style caravans that are common on the island.

Otero-Santiago said she has connected with Georgia state representative Pedro “Pete” Marin, who is of Puerto Rican descent, and José Alejandro la Luz, who formed “Latinos Against Trump” in Georgia. The group has helped identify potentially 80,000 Puerto Rican voters and organize get out the vote events.

She’s working to get the Democratic candidates to participate in a caravan because she said voters need to see them “eat the mofongo.”

“Puerto Ricans do identify with their culture and it’s a way of bringing them out to vote," said Otero-Santiago.

Activists also are making use of comic book and cartoon artists. Voto Latino and Fair Fight, the group founded by Stacey Abrams, has posted a digital ad featuring La Borinqueña, the Puerto Rican comic book superhero. They also are using actors Zoe Saldaña and Rosario Dawson in a push to register voters.

Nationally syndicated political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz is partnering with the progressive groups Mijente, the Center for Popular Democracy and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and their campaign “Georgia Con Ganas” (Georgia with Enthusiasm), illustrating a series of cartoons to reach Latino voters in the state.

The cartoons address voter registration, candidate profiles and voter issues, and he's making them culturally relevant, to appeal to the different Latino voter groups in the state. In Atlanta, says Alcaraz, the Hispanic population is 70 percent Mexican.

“I use luchadores (Mexican wrestlers; the word also means "fighters") representing the voters because a luchador was one of my favorite characters growing up," said Alcaraz. “This is a very important vote, because it means control of the Senate.”

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Patricia Guadalupe contributed.