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Pundits have long had themes attached to Latino voters. Time to ditch the practice?

Analysis: Latino voters’ mixed midterm outcomes shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re not new.
Clark County Election Department poll workers check people in at the Meadows Mall on Nov. 8, 2022 in Las Vegas.
Poll workers in Nevada's Clark County check people in at the Meadows Mall in Las Vegas on Election Day. Ethan Miller / Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO — Will Latinos turn Nevada red? Are Democrats losing Hispanic voters?

Those were among the driving questions leading up to the midterm elections about Latino voters. The election results show that the answers are, in order, no and some.

“I think the conventional wisdom going into the election was wrong. Every media story, national media story, was that Hispanics were moving towards Republicans,” said Jason Villalba, board chairman and CEO of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, a centrist think tank.

As outstanding races have begun to be called, Democrats are seeing that Latinos did not abandon them and in several cases were critical to their victories. But they were reminded that Latinos' brand loyalty isn't a given.

Most Democrats still won the majority of Latino support this election, while some Republican candidates attracted larger shares of support from Latinos than in previous elections.

“Republicans didn’t have as good a night as they thought they would. Democrats didn’t have as bad a night as they thought they would,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, vice president of the Latino vote initiative at UnidosUS, a civil rights and advocacy group.

“But Latinos had a good night because they reaffirmed the decisive role they play for both parties,” she said.

Latino voters have long had themes attached to them for elections. Some years, it has been, “Will the sleeping giant awake?” In others, “Will Latinos be Democrats’ blue wall?" In this election,“Will Latinos shift red?”

The 2022 results once again show that there’s a need to make room for more than one theme in an election.

Where Democrats saw solid support

Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s win clinched control of the Senate for Democrats; 62% of Latinos voted for her, NBC News exit polls show.

In Arizona, where Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly edged out Republican Blake Masters, 58% of Latinos supported Kelly. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who declared he would get more than half of Texas' Hispanic vote, finished with 40 percent, 2 percent less than in his last election.

In Pennsylvania, 68 percent of Latinos voted for Democrat John Fetterman, who beat Republican Mehmet Oz, in the Senate race, and 72 percent voted for Democrat Josh Shapiro, who won the governor's race over Republican Doug Mastriano.

Republicans had solid gains and support from Latinos in Florida, helping Gov. Ron DeSantis win re-election with 58 percent of Latino votes and flipping Miami-Dade County.

A 'real' GOP shift — but more diffuse

Republicans also saw tighter Latino vote margins in congressional races, including in South Texas, where they tried to win three congressional seats, but ended up with one, and in California. Both parties are sending several new Latinos to Congress.

“The shift that happened was sustained and real,” said GOP consultant Mike Madrid about Latino support for Republican candidates. “This new national Hispanic baseline is sitting in the high 30s, and that’s a pretty remarkable turn of events in the face of a strong year for Democrats or a bad year for Republicans."

Gabe Sanchez, vice president of research at BSP Research, a Democratic polling firm, said Republican outreach helped significantly reduce perceptions that the GOP is hostile toward Latinos. That helped create a "bridge opportunity" with Latino voters, said Sanchez, also a University of New Mexico political science professor.

But Sanchez said Republicans made a failed assumption that addressing inflation and the cost of living were crucial to winning Latinos' votes. BSP data showed that voters were not as angry about their economic situation as in previous elections and were not directing that anger at Biden.

"It was diffused. It was Biden and Democrats. It was rich CEOs that were making big profits, particularly oil and gas. It was not all like the tip of the spear to Democrats the way Republicans thought it was going to happen, and that was a failed opportunity to talk to Latinos about a wider range of issues," he said.

Villalba said that while he did see a rightward shift among Latinos, "the pace at which it is occurring is leveling out."

Republicans went after Latinos in a big way in South Texas. But the rightward movement there in 2020 with Donald Trump on the ballot has slowed, he said. Republicans made a multimillion-dollar investment in three congressional districts in South Texas, and lost two.

“Republicans in 2018 and 2020 dumped tremendous amounts of resources in Texas. To what good? They ended up taking a seat that they couldn’t have lost because it was drawn for a Republican to win,” Villalba said.

Raw data shows GOP increases in Latino votes in the state “flatlined” or were “very, very anemic” compared to 2020.

For Democrats, it's easier to sit on their laurels, but if it wasn't for the Supreme Court overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide, "we might be having a very different conversation," said Sanchez, who is also a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Ignored history?

The complexity and unpredictability of what many still try to define as the "Latino vote" tracks with what has been happening in the Hispanic electorate for more than a decade.

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas, noted that Latinos have been here before in terms of their share of voting Republican. George W. Bush was elected with 35% of the Latino vote and did even better in getting re-elected with 40% of the Latino vote.

And Florida voters have long been Republican voters, Soto said. That diversity had been forgotten because for a few election cycles Republicans gave up on Latinos, not doing as much outreach, she said.

Since the early 2000s, hundreds of thousands of Latinos have turned 18 each year, so the electorate has not only been adding more young people, but also growing up.

Those who were 18 for the 2008 election, the year Barack Obama was elected president with the help of historic Latino turnout, would have been 32 in this year's election.

For many voters, their priorities change in that span of time. Much of the conservative shift seen in Hispanics is with those 60 and older, and older voters often are better at turning out than younger voters. This midterm, 36 percent of Latinos who voted were voting in their first midterm, Martinez de Castro, of UnidosUS, said.

"What pundits get wrong is either taking Latinos for granted as a base vote that is going to act in a certain way no matter what the environment or the outreach," Martinez de Castro said, or "in terms of what issues to talk or not talk to them about. And then when outreach happens, it happens at the last minute."

"There are takeaway lessons here," said Martinez de Castro, "for Democrats and Republicans."