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Latino, minority voters helped drive Democrats' gains in U.S. House, experts say

“The net wave of the Democratic pickup is due entirely to strong support from the minority community,” said Latino Decisions pollster Matt Barreto.
Early voting location sign sits among candidates' signs at the entrance to the Daniel E. Ruiz branch of the Austin Public Library in East Austin, Texas
Early voting location sign sits among candidates' signs at the entrance to the Daniel E. Ruiz branch of the Austin Public Library in East Austin, Texas.Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

AUSTIN, Texas — Latinos and other minorities voted heavily for Democratic candidates, helping to drive the party’s capture of the U.S. House in this year's midterm elections, experts said Wednesday.

Democrats will take control of the House when the next congressional session begins in January after picking up more than the 23 seats needed to reclaim the majority.

“The net wave of the Democratic pickup is due entirely to strong support from minority communities who voted Democrat,” Latino Decisions pollster Matt Barreto said in a conference call discussing the election eve poll of 9,425 Latino, African American, Asian Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Native American voters.

Data for the turnout of Latinos will not be available until later. On the morning of Election Day on Tuesday, the top-trending Google Search in the U.S. was "dónde votar," Spanish for where to vote.

In the Latino Decisions election eve survey, 73 percent of Latinos said they voted for the Democratic candidate, while 90 percent African Americans, 72 percent of AAPIs and 61 percent of Native Americans said they chose the Democrat. Forty-five percent of white voters cast their ballot for Democrats.

NBC’s national exit poll had similar, though slightly lower, results showing 69 percent of Latinos interviewed on Election Day after casting ballots voted for Democrats, while 29 percent supported Republicans.

In addition to helping Democrats win the House majority, Latinos came out strong for candidates such as Beto O'Rourke, the Texas congressman whose grassroots campaign drew national attention but fell short and put incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, on edge. Cruz ultimately defeated O'Rourke.

There had been late election angst on whether the Democratic party was doing enough to reach Latino voters. A tracking poll conducted by Latino Decisions showed that about 55 percent to 65 percent of Latinos said they had not been contacted about registering or voting.

According to the NBC News Exit Poll, one in four Latino voters said they cast a midterm ballot for the first time this year.

Greater shares of young Latinos, who make up a significant portion of the Latino electorate, voted for Democrats than of their older peers, turning out for candidates such as O’Rourke and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum in Florida, according to the national exit poll.

Exit polls showed that 81 percent of the Latinos ages 18 to 29 and another 74 percent who were ages of 30 to 44 voted for Democrats. The next highest share voting for Democrats was Latinos ages 65 and older, 71 percent.

Although the Latino Decisions and the national exit poll do not provide turnout numbers, Barreto said Texas counties from El Paso through the Rio Grande Valley that are majority Latino saw increases of Latino turnout of more than 100 percent.

In Dallas County, Latino turnout rose to 86 percent and helped contribute to Democrat Colin Allred’s upset win over longtime incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions in the Republican-leaning, suburban Dallas district.

The increased turnout trickled down to the state level.

Cesar Blanco, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee, said Democrats gained 10 seats in the state House, including two Latinas who won in Dallas County districts. Voters also turned out state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, the Texas lawmaker who called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on protestors who were mostly Latino.

The gains are a “game changer,” because the House partisan divide will now become 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats, from 95-55, Blanco said. Also, the Texas House speaker is elected by a majority of all members, not by the party with the most seats, so Democrats will have a larger vote on the next Speaker, he said.

“We haven’t seen these kinds of gains in the last three decades for Democrats,” Blanco said, adding that the Latino vote contributed to the gains.

Precinct analysis from the Latino Politics and Policy Initiative at the University of California at Los Angeles, where Barreto is faculty co-director, showed Harris County had some of the highest vote increases in the county’s majority Latinos precincts.

The analysis also showed that precincts in the county that were between 80 perecent and 100 percent Latino registered 80 percent to 90 percent support for O’Rourke.

The Harris County data suggests that Cruz captured closer to 20 percent or 23 percent of the Latino vote rather than the 37 percent reported in the national exit poll, Barreto said. The city of Houston is in Harris County.

Lina Hidalgo, 27, who was born in Colombia but raised in Peru and Mexico, defeated longtime Harris County Judge Emmett Eastman. In Texas, the chief executive for county government is called the county judge.

In Florida, Maria Cisneros, 20, was one of the young Latino voters who cast a ballot on Tuesday in Coral Gables, part of Florida House District 27, where Democrat Donna Shalala defeated Cuban American and Republican candidate Maria Elvira Salazar in the seat vacated by outgoing Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Cisneros said she was compelled to vote because of recent school shootings such as the one in Parkland, Florida.

“It really affected me,” said Cisneros, who was born and raised in Venezuela before moving to Connecticut and then enrolling at the University of Miami.

The Latino Decisions poll found 72 percent of those surveyed in battleground districts and 75 percent of Latinos overall agreed that Congress should enact stricter gun laws.

Cisneros said that in 2016, she voted for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio because of his tough stance on Venezuela and that she would support other candidates who do the same.

Cisneros’ vote demonstrates the swing nature of the some of the Latino vote in Florida where groups like Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans, are at times, driven by the political situation in their home country and could favor candidates who campaign on those issues., but may not always vote on that basis.

For example, Democrats also won in Florida District 26, a district that has a large Cuban American population. In that district, voters rejected incumbent Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Cuban American, and backed Democrat Debbie Murcasel-Powell, who is of Ecuadoran and Lebanese descent.

Florida’s Senate race between incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson and Rick Scott, the state’s former governor, remained too close to call Wednesday and Republican Ron DeSantis was the apparent winner over Gillum in the governor’s race, although there still was uncertainty in the outcome of that race also.

Joanna Armas, 34, a pharmacist in South Florida, voted for the first time in a midterm election. She said she voted mostly Republican. “The country is in crisis. Our country is divided. There is no balance,” Armas said.

Janet Murguia, president of UnidosUS, pointed out that Scott spent $4 million on Spanish language television, compared to $1 million spent by Nelson. One of his ads ran during this year's World Cup.

“It’s hard to discount that Gov. Scott did do real outreach to Latino voters. I’m not sure we saw the same energy and engagement by Sen. Nelson,” Murguia said.

Scott also welcomed and provided assistance for Puerto Ricans who came to Florida to escape the devastation of Hurricane Maria. He made multiple visits to the island during its recovery.

"I was hearing from the ground ...'Oh, we know Rick Scott. He speaks Spanish. I know he's running for senator and he's been to Puerto Rico," said Betsy Franceschini, senior state director in Florida for the Hispanic Federation, a Latino advocacy group.

Even so, 61 percent of Latinos in Florida said they did or would vote for Gillum and Nelson in the election eve poll done by Latino Decisions, Asian American Decisions and the African American Research Collaborative. A number of other minority advocacy and immigration groups helped fund the study.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, responsible for winning enough House elections to put the party in the majority, made Latino and minority turnout a priority this election cycle, getting started soon after President Donald Trump’s election.

According to the DCCC, it spent more than $21 million on coordinated and independent expenditures for Latino candidates, including spending on television, digital and radio ads and investment in field operations.

Of the 111 districts it targeted this year, 29 were districts where 10 percent or more of the electorate is Latino. At the end of October, the DCCC - whose chairman and executive director are Latinos — released an ad in English and Spanish that didn't focus on a single candidate but on getting Latinos out to vote.

The Democrat Party, led by Tom Perez, also Latino, also devoted funding and staff to Latino and minority outreach and increased the diversity of its own staff.

Additional reporting from Carmen Sesin in Miami and Nicole Acevedo in New York.