These 8 Latino Democratic candidates could be historic firsts in Congress

Some candidates are poised to make history in their heavily Democratic districts as other face a more unpredictable fate in Republican or highly divided districts.
Candace Valenzuela, Ritchie Torres, Ammar Campa-Najjar
Candace Valenzuela, Ritchie Torres, Ammar Campa-NajjarCandace Valenzuela campaign, AP, CQ-Roll Call

From becoming the first Afro-Latina or LGBTQ congresswoman to the first Native American veteran in Congress, these eight Latino Democratic candidates running for House seats could make congressional history in November.

Idaho's Rudy Soto, Kansas' Michelle De La Isla and California's Ammar Campa-Najjar are putting up a tough fight as they try to make history in heavily Republican districts, while Latina candidates Christina Hale and Candace Valenzuela face toss-up races in Indiana and Texas, respectively.

At the same time, candidates such as New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez and Teresa Leger Fernandez, an attorney and politician in New Mexico, are running for office in predominantly Democratic districts.

Georgette Gómez

Georgette Gomez.David Poller / Georgette Gomez campaign

Georgette Gómez is the first LGBTQ Latina to be elected president of the San Diego City Council and she's looking to make history again this November as she runs against fellow progressive Sara Jacobs to represent California's 53rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

If elected, the first generation Mexican-American Democrat would become the first LGBTQ Latina in Congress.

"We've got to recognize the representation is not there," Gómez, who grew up in a mixed immigration status family in San Diego, told NBC News. "Because of it, the issues that are critical to us are not being discussed."

Gómez said that responding to the impact of Covid-19 while running for Congress has made her more aware and committed to addressing inequities that have put vulnerable communities at a higher risk of surviving the health and economic consequences of the pandemic.

"In California, the homeless population continues to rise, the cost of paying rent continues to rise. We are a wealthy state, but it really isn't trickling down," she said. "We really need to think differently and think boldly to create a better path for middle-incomes families to grow. We've been pushing people to the bottom."

She says she grew up in a low-income area that had to grapple with industrial pollution. Addressing the environment and the climate crisis, advocating "Medicare for All," supporting equal pay for women and people of color and addressing immigrants’ rights and discrimination are her main campaign issues.

Rudy Soto

Rudy Soto, a veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard, is the son of Mexican immigrants and a member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation. He could become the first Latino and first Native American Congressman elected to represent Idaho.Rudy for Congress

Without being able to campaign at fairs, festivals, rodeos and quinceañeras, Rudy Soto said that running to represent Idaho's 1st Congressional District in the House has been challenging, especially in the middle of the pandemic.

The Democrat, who is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation and the son of a Mexican immigrant, could become the first Latino and first Native American veteran congressman from the state if elected.

While Soto is running against Republican incumbent Russ Fulcher and two other candidates to represent the predominantly Republican district, Soto hopes voters see past party lines and unite behind one of the most important issues hitting his community — health care.

From immigration reform and veteran affairs to criminal justice and the rights of people with disabilities, Soto told NBC News that the issues he's looking to prioritize in Congress are personal. He launched his campaign last Nov. 18, the anniversary of "my dad's premature passing from a lack of access to affordable health care," he said.

His father lost his health insurance after being laid off from his factory job and had no coverage when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. The experience pushed Soto to help people enroll in health care plans as a policy analyst in a health nonprofit and work on expanding Medicaid in the state, a measure that in 2018.

"That made me feel good about the people in my state and it made me think that with the right candidate and causes, you could win," Soto said. "My life has been centered around knowing what it's like to struggle, sacrifice and serve."

Ritchie Torres

New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres speaks at a news conference on March 19, 2018.Richard Drew / AP file

Seven years ago, Ritchie Torres became the youngest member of the New York City Council and the first openly LGBTQ official elected to represent the Bronx. An Afro-Latino of Puerto Rican descent, Torres is now poised to become the first LGBTQ Latino elected to Congress after winning his primary in New York's 15th Congressional District this summer.

Torres is expected to win his race against Republican Patrick Delices to represent the historically Democratic district and take the place of Rep. José Serrano, a 16-term Democrat from the South Bronx. Serrano announced his retirement last year after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Torres recently told MSNBC that after seeing how the health and economic consequences of the pandemic have disproportionately affected people of color in the Bronx, he will push for a "comprehensive social safety net that establishes both health and housing as a human right."

"As a product of public housing, public schools and public hospitals, I had a dream of fighting for my community in the hopes of building a better Bronx," Torres says on his campaign website, adding that housing, health care, education and employment are some of the top issues he seeks to focus on in Congress.

Teresa Leger Fernandez

Teresa Leger Fernandez at a fundraiser in Farmington, Ind., on July 19, 2019.Hannah Grover / USA TODAY Network

Leger Fernandez, an attorney, is running to represent New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District — a seat now held by Ben Ray Luján, who is leaving the House to run for the Senate.

She's running against Republican Alexis Johnson and seeking to become the first Latina to represent the historically Democratic district, which has never been represented by a woman, according to Emily's List, a political action committee focused on getting Democratic women who support abortion rights like Leger Fernandez elected.

Leger Fernandez would also join a New Mexico House delegation of all Democratic women of color if Reps. Xochitl Torres Small and Debra Haaland are re-elected in November.

As a breast cancer survivor "whose health coverage could be denied for pre-existing conditions," Leger Fernandez says she "wants every person to have affordable and accessible health care," according to her campaign website. She will fight any attempts to roll back protections to the Affordable Care Act, according to Emily's List, which endorsed her candidacy.

Issues around sustainability, immigration, economic opportunity and education are among Leger Fernandez's list of priorities, according to her campaign website.

Michelle De La Isla

Michelle De la Isla.GDA via AP

De La Isla became the first Latina mayor of Topeka, Kansas, in 2018, but she hopes to make history again this year as she runs to represent her state's 2nd Congressional District, which Republicans won by less than 1 point in 2018.

In November, she could become the first Latina elected to represent Kansas in Congress if she wins the Republican-leaning race against state Treasurer Jacob LaTurner, who beat the incumbent, Steve Watkins, in the GOP primary.

De La Isla is one of dozens of candidates in the Red to Blue program of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which provides them funds, campaign staff and other resources to help them get elected and potentially flip Republican districts.

De La Isla was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico before moving to Kansas in 2000 to attend college. She has survived poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and cancer.

“De La Isla’s life story is more than an inspiration for us all; it’s a blueprint that she used as a city council member and as mayor to bring forth solutions," said Mayra Macías, executive director of the Latino Victory Fund, a progressive political action committee that endorsed De La Isla's candidacy.

Access to health care, education and employment are some of the issues De La Isla says she wants to fight for in Congress, according to her campaign website.

Candace Valenzuela

Candace Valenzuela.Candace Valenzuela's campaign

Valenzuela stands to become the first Black Latina elected to Congress and just the third Latina elected from Texas. She faces Republican Beth Van Duyne, the former mayor of Irving, to represent the state's 24th Congressional District, a seat Democrats consider to be one of their best pickup opportunities in November.

Valenzuela, the daughter of a Mexican American mother and a Black father, was the first in her family to graduate from college. She became an educator, working as a special needs teacher, and then became the first Latina and first African American woman to serve on the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board.

She recently told Telemundo News that with a victory in November, she hopes to continue the fight for social justice waged by the late Rep. John Lewis.

“He made sure that his struggles came to benefit his entire community and Americans and democracy in general," Valenzuela said. "I am hoping to honor his legacy by pushing for a 21st century Voting Rights Act. I'm trying to have a lot of very critical conversations about race and representation in Texas, and I hope that my candidacy and my governance reflects that in a great way as well."

Valenzuela is also part of the Red to Blue program, focusing on issues around the Covid-19 response as well as criminal justice and immigration reform.

Ammar Campa-Najjar

Ammar Campa-Najjar, Democratic candidate for California's 50th Congressional district.Congressional Quarterly / CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Campa-Najjar is facing former Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican, in California's 50th Congressional District, which is considered heavily conservative. Issa left Congress in 2018 after representing a neighboring district for 18 years.

If elected, Campa-Najjar would become the first Latino-Arab American in Congress.

Campa-Najjar, the son of a Mexican American mother and a Palestinian father, ran for the same seat two years ago and lost to Republican Duncan Hunter, who was under a corruption indictment at the time. Hunter later resigned and was sentenced to 11 months in prison for misusing campaign funds.

Campa-Najjar did not stop campaigning after the loss and says he has been working to build trust in a district that had been represented by Hunter or his father since 1981 but has had no representative in the House since the younger Hunter resigned in January.

“We’ve been fending off the worst pandemic in 100 years without a congressman,” Campa-Najjar, who started out as a young campaign volunteer for President Barack Obama and worked in the administration, previously told NBC News. “The 50th is silent. It has no voice during this whole, entire pandemic.”

Democrats added Campa-Najjar to their Red to Blue program to help him flip the congressional seat. Helping small businesses and getting "big money out of politics" as well as public safety and national security are among his top issues, according to his campaign website.

Christina Hale

Christina Hale.Michelle Pemberton / USA TODAY Network

Hale is running to represent Indiana's 5th Congressional District, and if elected would become the first Latina to represent the state in Congress. She was elected to the Indiana State House in 2012.

Hale, of Cuban descent, is facing Republican Victoria Spartz and two other candidates in a toss-up race to replace Republican Susan Brooks, who decided not to run for a fifth term.

The rising costs of health care, ensuring that children are prepared for a changing job market and worrying about the quality of drinking water are some of the concerns Hale hopes to address in Congress, according to her campaign website.

"In Congress, I’ll reach across the aisle to lower health care costs, protect people with pre-existing conditions, and secure the resources and support we need to keep our community and local economy strong,” Hale said in a statement last week.

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