Days before the Senate runoffs in Georgia this month, a canvasser with the Latino progressive political group Mijente knocked on the door of an 80-year-old man who didn’t know there was an election or who was running.
The man asked the canvasser to talk to him about who was best for the community, and that’s who would get his vote, said Tania Unzueta Carrasco, political director for Mijente, who related the story told to her by a canvasser.
“Here in Georgia, the support of the two candidates was a little bit of a trust exercise,” Unzueta Carrasco told NBC News. “We were looking at the bigger picture. We were looking at the fact that if they didn’t win, we wouldn’t have a Democratic majority.”
They did win. And the twin victories for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the Jan. 5 runoffs gave Democrats control of the Senate. But the violent and deadly storming of the Capitol the next day largely eclipsed that news and threatened to overshadow what Latinos in the state had contributed to the campaigns.
The day before the runoff, Mijente PAC announced that it had contacted every Latino voter in Georgia, knocking on more than 310,000 doors amid a pandemic, calling more than 257,000 cellphones and landlines, and sending more than 376,000 texts.
Those numbers left no doubt among local and national Latino activists—as well as their financial backers—that something important had happened in Georgia, and that the years-long struggle to turn out Latino voters for Democratic candidates yielded results.
Moreover, ahead of upcoming congressional elections, it showed what's possible.
“I hope this election served to convince people that if you invest in our community, we will turn out,” said Mayra Macias, executive director of Latino Victory, a progressive Latino group that established a chapter in Georgia in 2017 after seeing the growth of the Latino electorate.
Leaders of the many Latino groups that descended on the state, along with Georgia Latino community groups, said there was a concerted, cooperative and multicultural effort to mobilize the estimated 377,000 Latinos in Georgia that are eligible to vote. The Latino electorate tends to be younger as well.
Granted, just having runoffs in one state meant resources didn’t have to be divided among several states, as in the general election. But several group leaders said they saw more bilingual and Spanish language ads in Georgia, as well as more mailings and digital outreach.
“For us Georgia was already important. The community there was ready to take power and use it to make changes,” said Yadira Sanchez, co-executive director of Poder Latinx, a social justice group.
Harnessing, funding grassroots groups
Although there was a need to educate some voters about why they were having to return to the polls, several progressive organizers said many of the state's Latino voters were well aware of what Democratic control of Congress could mean for them, after years of fights against 287(g) agreements, which allow local law officers to enforce federal immigration laws.
"Talk to anyone on the ground and they can cite better than folks who work in politics what 287(g) is and how it harmed the community," Macias said. "So much of the Latino community was really driven to be active this election cycle because of the effects of 287(g) raids that happened early in the Trump administration.
But they also gave credit to Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist and former Georgia state House minority leader who built a mobilization infrastructure and relationships with grassroots Latino groups who had worked to turn out voters in her unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2018.
Tory Gavito, co-founder and president of Way to Win, a network of progressive donors and organizations, said the network was tracking about $5.8 million in funding for groups such as Mijente, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and others trying to mobilize Latinos.
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“I’m looking at what we can extrapolate from the lessons of what we do when we fully fund the community from the Georgia level to the national level moving forward because it is pretty phenomenal,” Gavito said.
Esteban Garces, treasurer of Votar es Poder PAC, the political action committee of Poder Latinx, said the PAC had spent $1 million to fund a Latino registration and mobilization program in Florida and took lessons from that effort to Georgia. The PAC partnered with the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and the Decatur, Georgia-based International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.
Poder Latinx reported it made at least 400,000 phone calls and knocked on at least 15,000 doors after the November elections, building on what it had done in the state for the presidential election on Nov. 3. It raised $300,000 for the Georgia effort. Its spending included $120,000 for an ad on Univision the week before the runoffs.
One of the PAC's most visible endeavors during the runoff campaigns was the sponsorship of the East Los Angeles band Las Cafeteras for their remake of the classic song “Georgia on My Mind”. It also sponsored a digital ad using the Latina superhero La Borinqueña, who also was featured in digital ads sponsored by Voto Latino and Fair Fight Action, an Abrams organization.
“The hope was for folks to know communities of color need investment and we invested,” said Sanchez, of Poder Latinx.
So did other groups.
Mi Familia Vota, which has canvassed in the Latino community in several states for years, said it had made 1.4 million attempts to reach Georgia voters, including 42,517 unique door knocks and 755,800 text messages; it registered 861 voters. The group partnered with the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Trust community groups, 'especially minority organizations'
Latinos were not the reason Warnock and Osoff defeated Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Black voters were key. Their turnout was higher than any other demographic group, and white voter turnout dropped, according to exit polling and other analyses.
But Latinos far outperformed their own turnout for other statewide runoffs and were part of a critical multicultural coalition and infrastructure.
Seventy-eight percent of those Latinos who voted in the general election returned to vote in the runoffs, according to Bernard Fraga, an associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of "The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America." Exit polls put the percentage at around 71 percent.
That was a huge jump from a 2018 secretary of state runoff election, when just 15 percent of Latinos who voted in that year's general election returned.
Ossoff won his race by 54,944 votes and Warnock by 93,272, according to the Georgia Secretary of State.
Fraga said the takeaway from the election is that Democrats won with a multicultural, multiethnic coalition focused on voter mobilization with on the ground work. This ensured that minority turnout did not drop off between the general and the runoff elections as much as it had in the past.
“Republicans hit their targets. They hit the numbers they needed to hit. It’s just that turnout was so high among Black voters and other Democrats on Election Day that it didn’t matter,” Fraga said. Republicans did the work, Fraga said, but it wasn’t enough because of all the work that was done to get minority voters out.
“Trust the mobilization organizations that are on the ground doing this work, every election, but also between elections," said Fraga. "Trust those organizations, especially minority organizations, to know what it takes to mobilize communities."
Gavito said the lessons for Democrats from Georgia are important, since they got a wake-up call in November in that Trump and other Republican candidates made inroads with Latino voters, particularly in rural areas.
“Democrats have to take the Latino vote more seriously," she said, "and that means engaging it, and I hope that is the lesson moving forward."
The Senate races were the most expensive ever, with at least $470 million spent on them, according to OpenSecrets.org.
There were last-minute fights over poll closures and only two counties in the state provided bilingual ballots, compelling many groups to send their own workers to the polls to help provide translations on Election Day.
The pandemic still raged in the state and Georgia was contending with Trump’s attempts to overturn the Nov. 3 election results.
“Despite all of the obstacles that our communities encountered,” Garces, of Votar es Poder, said, “we still went out in record numbers and we changed Georgia.”