AUSTIN, Texas — Latinos are heading to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots in a midterm election that in many ways has a lot to do with them.
Health care and immigration have been front and center in the 2018 midterms and there has been high interest in whether the election would feature a Latino backlash against President Donald Trump.
Also, the outcome in several races in battleground U.S. House and Senate races, such as in Texas and Nevada, can be influenced by Latino turnout.
“We’ve seen a more concerted effort at mobilizing Latinos” this election, said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a political scientist and lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin.
“We are not going to wake up Wednesday and say ‘Oh my God, every Latino turned out.’ We’re not. Spoiler alert. But I think we saw a big push,” she said.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) is expecting a 15 percent increase in voting by Latinos this year, about 7.8 million compared to 6.8 million in 2014.
Google Trends noted on Tuesday morning that the top-trending Google Search in the U.S. was "dónde votar," Spanish for "where to vote," which had spiked over 3,000 percent. The term "Where do I vote?" was also trending and was up 650 percent.
There are a number of Latino congressional candidates on the ballot, some of them in battleground districts, including Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico, Gil Cisneros in California and Antonio Delgado in New York.
Some, too, are virtually certain to win their races, such as Virginia Escobar and Sylvia Garcia in Texas, who will make history as the first Latinas to represent the Lone Star State in the U.S. House and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, whose upset win in the primary over a longtime Democratic incumbent in New York vaulted her into the national limelight.
Democrats from the start have made health care a central theme of campaigns, hammering Republicans on GOP votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
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It’s an issue that hits many Latino households, who are the most uninsured racial and ethnic group in the country and who saw marked declines in the number of uninsured families under the Affordable Care Act.
Health care access is a big issue for Samantha Branch, 19, a student at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. Her Medicaid coverage stopped when she turned 18; she's not covered by her parents’ coverage. She cast her first vote this election.
“I feel like there needs to be a change and my voice needs to be heard," Branch told NBC News. "I have more a liberal standpoint, and in Texas, it’s more conservative and Republican and I’d like more of a Democratic voice, and youth to be heard,”
Will immigration mobilize voters?
Last week, the president unleashed the first of the 15,000 active duty military soldiers that he's said he plans to send to the southern border. About 160 soldiers are in the McAllen area of Hidalgo County, where 90.6 percent of the population is Latino.
According to the McAllen (Texas) Monitor, the number of people who voted early in Hidalgo County more than doubled over 2014.
Early voting also surged in El Paso County, Texas home to Democrat Beto O’Rourke, the area’s congressman who is challenging Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican who made history as the first Hispanic to win the Iowa primary when he ran for president in 2016.
Republicans control the Senate 51-49, and the outcome of the Cruz-O'Rourke race could factor into the battle over the chamber.
Tuesday's voting will demonstrate whether Trump's relentless pounding on immigration — from his rhetoric on the migrant caravan "invasion" to his separation of children from migrant parents to his insistence in building a border wall — will push Latino voters turned off by his rhetoric even more toward the Democratic Party, not only in Texas where Republicans have seen 35 percent to 45 percent support from Hispanic voters in past elections, but around the country.
Candidates like Escobar in Texas think Trump's rhetoric and actions have had an impact on voters.
"We want to send a very powerful message to Washington, D.C., that the border will not sit on the sidelines during an era of unprecedented racism and hatred in my generation. So, I'm very excited. I'm fired up,” Escobar said.
For voters like Robert Benavides, 52, of San Antonio, it's the other way around. He said he could not support O’Rourke, in part, because of O'Rourke's views on immigration and health care. Benavides is voting for Cruz. “I’m all for helping others when you can, but there’s a right way to do this," he said.
Not all Latino Republicans side with Trump's immigration policies. Artemio Muniz, chairman of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans In Texas, said he would not vote for Cruz or O’Rourke and would write in Ronald Reagan as a protest vote.
He was trying to decide how to vote when Trump issued his call for an end to birthright citizenship. Muniz’s parents came to the U.S. without legal status and he was born here. Muniz said he couldn’t support Cruz since the senator’s immigration views are similar or “worse” than Trump's. Trump held a rally to support Cruz in Houston.
“The Republican Party of Texas refuses to believe that immigration is a top issue for Hispanics,” Muniz said.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal released Monday found the highest levels of enthusiasm among Latino likely voters going into Election Day. They also have a more positive view of the Democratic Party.
The final installment of a 10-week Latino Decisions/NALEO poll tracking registered Latino voters found that a quarter of those polled said they had voted early. Latino Decisions estimated Monday night that about 63 percent of Latino registered voters would cast votes and 76 percent would vote Democrat to 24 percent who would vote Republican.
Beyond the federal candidates and issues, there are several Latinos running in state and local races and issues that are drawing people to the polls.
Three Latinos, Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, Lupe Valdez in Texas and David Garcia in Arizona are running for governor of their respective states. Lujan Grisham seems poised for a win, but it's been a steeper uphill battle for Valdez and García.
In New York, Catalina Cruz, who immigrated from Colombia and grew up without legal status, is running for the state Assembly in New York. In Arizona, January Contreras is running for attorney general. “Love for country is embedded in my family, “ said Contreras, whose grandfather was a paratrooper in World War II.
In Nevada, former state treasurer Kate Marshall, who grew up Kathleen Soltero in a working-class California family, is vying for lieutenant governor in the Democratic ticket with Steve Sisolak. In Florida, Republican Jeanette Nuñez is on the ticket for the state's lieutenant governor seat with her fortunes tied to Rep. Ron DeSantis in his bid for governor against Andrew Gillum. If DeSantis wins, Nuñez would be the first Latina lieutenant governor in Florida. Running, said the Cuban-American candidate, is “a huge source of pride for me, for my family, but most importantly for my community.”
Additional reporting by Carmen Sesín in Miami, Nicole Acevedo in New York, Patricia Guadalupe in Washington, and Stephen A. Nuño in Flagstaff, Ariz.
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