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Election Day: Will Cultural Pride Get Latinos To Vote?

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An campaign worker places campaign signs outside an early voting polling site, Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, in San Antonio. Eric Gay / AP

WASHINGTON -- This year’s midterm election campaigns kicked into high gear just after President Barack Obama put plans for taking executive action on immigration reform on hold, following Republican inaction on legislation.

Advocates such as Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, knew the president’s delay would make getting out the Latino vote tougher, but was uncertain how far it would sway Latinos from their demonstrated preference for the Democratic party.

Fast forward to Election Day and Latino advocacy groups are feeling better about turnout as many key races are near deadlocked and as they have seen accelerated momentum in get out the vote efforts.

They fought the “Latinos are angry at Democrats over immigration” narrative by making voting an issue of cultural pride, of keeping and building clout and about making immigration reform more permanent by backing reform-friendly candidates.

Tuesday will determine how they did.

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, NALEO, has projected 7.8 million Latinos will show up at the polls this year, an increase from 6.6 million in 2010. The increase will largely be driven by population growth, NALEO's executive director Arturo Vargas has said.

Amid inaction on immigration, Latino voter groups made casting a ballot an issue of cultural pride, of building and keeping political clout. Tuesday will determine how they did.

Although many activists said the president’s delay on immigration action was part of their conversation with Latinos in their get-out-the-vote drives, others pointed out the economy, schools and other issues were what Latinos said would really drive their votes.

The activists' anecdotes were somewhat substantiated by a Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project survey that found Latinos are as motivated to vote as they were in 2010.

The same survey found that while 68 percent of Latinos were aware of the president’s immigration action delay, only a third were angered or disappointed by it. The survey results seemed to diminish the the potential of the Latino vote as a referendum on Obama’s immigration policy.

That didn’t stop immigration activist groups from protesting Obama over the delay, even heckling the president during speeches to make their point and calling on him to “go bold” when he does take action.

The protests were taking place amid tightening races and the campaign season frenzy, drawing retorts from Obama to go complain to the House Republicans who stopped immigration reform cold.

From the national perspective, the attempt by the GOP to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats has been largely the focus of the 2014 elections. As a result, the Latino vote has been shrugged off as not that important because of its limited size in eight states where competitive Senate races exist.

The Latino share of the electorate breaks 10 percent in only two of those states, Colorado, 14.2 percent and Kansas, 11 percent, according to Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project. Latino voters make up less than 5 percent in the remaining six states with close Senate races: Alaska, 4.8 percent; North Carolina, 3.1 percent; Arkansas, 2.9 percent; Louisiana, 2.8 percent; Iowa, 2.7 percent and Kentucky, 1.6 percent.

As some Senate races tighten within margins of error, the Latino electorate has become a place to mine for new votes. Those who have taken tough anti-immigration stands may find themselves unable to draw on that pool.

It was Democratic senators from some of those states who had urged Obama to hold off on taking executive action on immigration to keep it from being a rallying point for Republican voters.

As polls show those races tightening within margins of error, the Latino electorate has become a place to mine for new votes to push candidates to victory. Those that have taken tough anti-immigration stands may find themselves unable to draw on that pool.

Monterroso, whose Mi Familia Vota is one of the top Latino groups going after low propensity voters, said Latino voters have understood they need to build political power by voting.

“Even without the president doing administrative relief (for immigrants), Latino voters know we have to keep working hard for such things as immigration reform. They know the people we elect today are going to the ones to make the decisions” effecting Latino’s futures, he said.

While the 2008 and 2012 elections saw Latinos inspired to turn out by the candidacy of Obama, this time Latinos have been less inspired by candidates than by making sure their “vote is heard,” Monterroso said.

“There is a different understanding of how important it is for us being heard on the ballot box. It’s not a political party that is motivating them. They know who they don’t like because it’s not someone who is with them” on issues, he said.

Despite fewer resources for his group to register and educate voters, Mi Familia Vota signed up 8,500 Latinos to vote, more than in 2012, Monterroso said.

Beyond the Senate, there are many races to watch the impact of the Latino vote, namely congressional, gubernatorial races, state and local offices and ballot measures.

Joaquin Guerra, whose Democrat-aligned Texas Organizing Project PAC has been registering voters, said from the beginning the administration relief delay, though a concern, was not driving Latino voters, based on the experience of the group’s field organizers.

Grassroots tactics are vital, involving three or four visits to a voter's home and four or five calls as well. "This is what it takes to make an occasional voter a high propensity voter," said Joaquin Guerra of the Texas Organizing Project PAC.

“When it comes down to it, with the Latino vote, what’s really important is that the grassroots tactics are vital when talking with voters,” Guerra said. Since they have been dealing with occasional voters, the work has involved three to four visits to a voter’s home and four or five calls, as well. “This is what it takes to make an occasional voter a high-propensity voter,” he said.

Guerra said his group’s early vote turnout goal was 60,000 and his group has delivered 62,000. Already TOP has given 500 rides to the polls, he said. “We’re removing every barrier to voting so low propensity voters” will turn out to vote, he said.

His view from this season is that while the president’s executive action delay was of concern, “at the end of the day it’s going to come down to who is the trusted messenger.”

Jose Mallea, national strategic director for The LIBRE Initiative, a non-profit, conservative group, said those canvassing the Latino vote for his group found the president’s delay created a chance for Latinos to take a “second look” at candidates.

He thinks that second look may have most of its effect in Colorado, where GOP Rep. Cory Gardner won’t win the Latino vote in his bid to oust Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, but will do better than Mitt Romney did in the state in 2012 when he was the GOP’s presidential nominee. Latino engagement also will be key in Florida’s governor’s race.

“At the end of the day, people are realizing they have to play a part,” Mallea said.