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Republicans struggle in the Southwest as Latino voters stick with Democrats

“The GOP could potentially lose the Southwest for decades to come" if it doesn't take a different tack with Latinos, one independent pollster in the region said.
Nevada Democrats Campaign On Eve Of Midterm Elections
Catherine Cortez Masto at a campaign event in Las Vegas, on Nov. 7, 2022.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — There’s plenty of evidence that over time, Republicans have gained ground with Latinos in parts of the country, including Florida. But in the Southwest, an inverse trend has taken hold that could have implications for 2024 and beyond.

In Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, Latinos have stuck with Democrats, and that has helped power the party's gains across a region where Latino population growth has exploded. 

It belies a conventional narrative that Democrats were universally ceding Latino voters to the Republican Party, a story line repeated throughout the run-up to the Nov. 8 midterms. 

Instead, indicators show the GOP in danger of losing Latino voters in this region, a prospect that could mean being boxed out of the Southwest for the long term.

The Southwest was once deep-red territory. But Republicans are struggling to regain their grip. It's in part because they've alienated Latinos by taking more hardline stances, including on immigration, according to Simon Rosenberg, a longtime Democratic strategist who was part of the party’s early team that helped develop modern strategies for reaching Latino voters. Rosenberg said the Southwest today is a far cry from what it once was under former President George W. Bush. 

“This was once hostile terrain for us,” Rosenberg said. “Over the last 20 years, the Republican position has significantly deteriorated in the Southwest. And that’s indisputable.” 

Take the once reliably red Arizona. Before 2018, both U.S. Senate seats and every statewide office holder was Republican. Today, Democrats have won both Senate seats and the governor’s mansion — something that hasn’t happened in more than 70 years, said Mike Noble, an independent pollster who has done extensive research in the Southwest region. 

“The GOP could potentially lose the Southwest for decades to come if they don’t position themselves better among Hispanics and Latinos,” Noble said. “Republicans are in a critical time right now where they need to decide which route they’re going. Are they going the route of MAGA? Or are they going the route of that old Goldwater, traditional conservative, business-minded approach that really left them winning?” 

Noble pointed to longtime Arizona Republican Sens. Barry Goldwater and John McCain — who took a moderate stance on immigration yet pushed for reforms — as holding a winning formula that is escaping Republicans running for office today.   

A review of election results and exit polls, as well as interviews with campaign officials, data analysts and strategists point to a hardening phenomenon in the United States: Latino voters are exhibiting complexities that vary drastically from region to region and, in some cases, from state to state. While the Nov. 8 election data is yet to be finalized, and the Latino electorate’s allegiance is the subject of endless debate, one major lesson for 2024 is that there are layers of nuance within the Latino vote that are difficult to capture in national polling.

One analysis by Equis Research, which looks at Latino voting patterns, saw solid support for Democrats in places like Nevada and Arizona. Its analysis also showed that in Philadelphia, Democratic Sen.-elect John Fetterman outperformed Joe Biden’s 2020 results with Latinos. In Florida, it was another story. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won re-election, handily carrying the Latino vote, including 68% of Cuban Americans, according to the NBC News exit poll

“An overarching story that emerged from this election is that the voters had different stories depending on where you are in the country,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity at Pew Research Center said of Latinos. “There’s many local stories here to tell about Latino voters that the national numbers mask.”

Hugo Lopez pointed to unique characteristics of Latinos in different parts of the country. In Florida, there are larger populations of Cubans who fled communism and tend to vote more conservatively. There, Republicans have focused on and reached out to the community for decades, specifically around foreign policy issues, he said. In states like Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, there are large populations of second, third or higher generation families of Mexican origin.

“That may be shaping some of the ways in which Hispanic voters, particularly those who might be the children of immigrants, are engaging with politics, whether because of the issues of policies around undocumented immigrants and also issues like DACA,” Lopez added, referring to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program of President Barack Obama’s administration, which protects young undocumented people brought here by their parents from deportation.

In Arizona, the Democratic sweep happened despite worries that Latino support had dwindled, and that that would boost Republicans across the state, said Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“Something like that only happens when you have strong Latino support,” he said.  

Chuck Coughlin, a GOP pollster in Arizona, blamed the dominance of MAGA Republicans on the ballot, saying candidates such as Kari Lake, who lost her gubernatorial race, campaigned on exclusionary ideals that Latino voters rejected.     

“I’ve not seen since ‘16, a MAGA candidate win with that constituency. It just doesn’t happen,” Coughlin said. “It’s about telling you you’re not accepted here. Literally, it’s like Kari Lake throwing McCain Republicans out of the room. Well, she got her wish.

"Without a change in direction, Republicans are going to continue to lose," he added.

In New Mexico, the state with the most residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino in the country, Latino Democrats won nearly every statewide race. The party flipped the state’s 2nd Congressional District, a majority-Latino district that stretches along the U.S. border with Mexico, and fended off a Republican challenge in the 3rd Congressional District. 

In Colorado, Latinos helped give rise to the notion that the state is no longer a swing state but turning blue. Democrats secured a Senate seat and won the governor’s seat by double digits. The party now holds two-thirds of the seats in the state Legislature. 

Republicans in Nevada, despite repeatedly prognosticating that they would close the gap on Latino voters, instead watched as Latinos helped propel a Latina, Catherine Cortez Masto, to re-election, which tipped the U.S. Senate to Democrats. The new Democratic secretary of state, Cisco Aguilar, is the first Latino elected to the post in Nevada. The state did elect a Republican governor, Joe Lombardo, a victory that was largely fueled by deep anger over incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s closing of the state during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There’s no doubt they had a major role in my re-election. Latinos in Nevada are a third of the population,” Cortez Masto said. “What I know about our community is that they want to know you’re on their side. They want to engage all the time. You can’t just show up at the last minute. They want to know that you’re there and you understand the issues and that you can fight for them.”

Part of Cortez Masto’s campaign strategy was to start early with Spanish-language media advertising, with the first ad going up in March. One conservative group announced a $2 million investment in Spanish-language ads to support Laxalt, but that wasn’t until much later in the game. But there’s also evidence that Republican engagement with Latinos in Nevada is not as robust as it is in Texas and Florida, although Nevada Republicans have pointed to their investments in creating community centers as part of their secret to success.

Several members of the Nevada Republican Party, which is run by the national party, touted their local community center in Las Vegas, but when asked, they couldn’t identify its location. Spot visits on five occasions at different times of the day came up short: The door to the one-room, storefront office was closed.

When NBC News finally found it open and walked in, it was mostly an empty room, aside from a staffer seated at a table with a puppy that wandered over and had an accident on the floor. The staffer appeared startled by a visitor, then directed the reporter to another location to ask questions. At that location, another staffer offered a phone number for an official who did not respond to a request for comment. The site has, however, hosted events around the election, including for ultimately unsuccessful GOP Senate candidate Adam Laxalt.

“I think the engagement that we’re seeing with Hispanic and Asian voters in Clark County is going to be a difference maker,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, speaking to NBC News, predicted before the election. Laxalt ended up losing to Cortez Masto by some 8,000 votes. Even with some Latino voters staying home, NBC News exit polling showed that Cortez Masto won more than 60% of that vote. 

Still, there’s plenty of danger signs for Democrats when it comes to Latino voters, particularly among men. Dan Sena, whose firm Sena Kozar Strategies was involved in Spanish- and English-language ads as well as strategy for races across the Southwest, said if there’s erosion within the Democratic Party, it is among Latino men. 

“The good news is at least in New Mexico, they were heavily persuadable through the course of the campaigns. We were able to help win them back in relatively stronger numbers,” Sena said. But he predicted it would be a fight that comes up every election year. “The challenge we have is you can’t treat them like they’re base voters. Hispanic men are no longer base voters. They are true persuadable voters.”