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'The clock is ticking': Democrats on defense as Republicans pursue Latino voters

The deep focus on Latino voters by both parties promises to intensify in the coming months as Republicans plan to spend millions more on outreach.
Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives at a Latinos for Trump Coalition roundtable in Phoenix on Sept. 14, 2020.Andrew Harnik / AP file

Hispanic voters are more open to GOP attacks on Democrats and they're drifting more toward Republicans on major issues in this year’s midterm elections, according to data released this week by both parties’ House campaign arms.

On the economy, immigration and crime, Latinos see congressional Republicans as more trustworthy than Democrats, a new polling memo circulated Thursday by the National Republican Campaign Committee suggests. 

The numbers are consistent with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s own research, which was presented to Democratic officials Tuesday. 

Another plus for Republicans: When they attack Democrats over the issues, Latino voters are more likely to be receptive compared to non-Hispanic whites, Blacks or Asian and Pacific Islanders, according to the DCCC research, which consisted of focus groups and polling.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats expect that a majority of Hispanic voters nationwide will start voting GOP in the November midterms, but Latino voters have demonstrated enough electoral independence — while also voting more like working-class whites on culture issues — that they’re increasingly viewed as indicators for how elections can swing. 

“There’s time for Republicans to exploit this more, and there’s time for Democrats to reverse this — although the clock is ticking,” said Democratic strategist Carlos Odio, a co-founder of EquisLabs, which studies Hispanic voter trends and communities.

The deep focus on Hispanic voters by both parties promises to only intensify in the coming months as Republicans plan to spend millions more on Hispanic voter outreach, spurred by then-President Donald Trump’s surprising gains with Latinos in 2020. Democrats acknowledge that Trump surprised them two years ago and have vowed not to be caught unaware again. 

Image: Latinos for Trump, Mike Pence Rallies Latinos For Trump In Orlando, Florida
People hold signs after Vice President Mike Pence addressed supporters at a Latinos for Trump campaign rally at Central Christian University in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 10, 2020.Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

It’s why the DCCC conducted its research effort into GOP attacks to help blunt the attacks and why it set up a Spanish-language website to counteract Spanish-language disinformation online.

“As someone who primarily advocates for the well-being of Latino communities, I am mostly annoyed that a lot of folks feel unheard, that they’re struggling, that they feel they’re not being spoken to — because they’re not wrong,” Odio said, faulting Democrats. “As someone who prefers that Democrats win, I would say I’m glad we’re having this conversation now, because the mistake on either side would be to assume this is a static situation. But this is going to be a straight-up contest to fight for votes that are up for grabs.”

In a recent survey of 1,000 Hispanics voters across 47 battleground House districts nationwide, the NRCC found that Latinos believed that Republicans would be better than Democrats to handle the economy, by a 7 percentage-point margin. The survey also suggested that Hispanic voters believed the GOP is better able to handle jobs, the economy and rising costs — also by 7 points — and they viewed crime control as more of a GOP strength, by 8 points. 

Republicans’ biggest advantage in the survey: They have a 13-point advantage on handling border security.

The numbers don’t surprise Odio and other Latino vote experts, as well as Democratic representatives like Henry Cuellar of Texas, who say the NRCC data generally jibe with what Democrats are finding in their polling or in their own observations of their Latino constituents.

“My district is 80 percent Hispanic, and the people here are concerned about the border,” said Cuellar, whose South Texas district was among those sampled by the NRCC poll. “What they see now is the border is open in many ways, even though the administration says, ‘No.’ They want to see legal migration. They want to see people treated with respect and dignity, but they don’t want to see open borders or people jumping the line. The messaging [from Republicans] does resonate.”

Cuellar, one of the most conservative members of the House Democratic caucus, faces a March 1 primary against progressive Jessica Cisneros, who is seeking a rematch after Cuellar bested her in 2020. The primary was recently jolted by an FBI raid on Cuellar's home and campaign office that was part of a federal investigation into Azerbaijan and a group of U.S. businessmen who have ties to the country, NBC News has reported. Cuellar has denied any wrongdoing.

The potency of Republican messaging extends beyond Hispanic voters to the electorate at large. According to the DCCC’s research, voters overall believe Democrats are too “preachy” and that GOP attacks on crime, immigration, the economy and schools could leave a mark. 

The DCCC polling and focus group research, first reported by Politico and independently obtained by NBC News, suggested ways for Democrats to counter the Republican attacks by saying they’re not for “defunding the police” or are against “open borders.” 

The DCCC research indicated that, after Democrats gave their rebuttals, their position marginally improved from being 4 points down to Republicans to 2 points down with voters overall. Hispanic voters were outliers. Of all races and ethnicities studied, Hispanics showed the most Democratic attrition when they were exposed to negative Republican messaging, with their support dropping by 7 percentage points, from 21 percent to 14 percent, the research suggested.

“On the culture war, the Republicans have just been better architects at messaging,” Cuellar said.

Tim Persico, the executive director of the DCCC, said the party learned a lesson from 2020, when it decided not to respond to wild attacks from the right. He said that won’t happen again this year.

“For a lot of us, we made a mistake by saying it’s so obviously false that we’re not going to pay attention to it,” he said. “It turns out if someone says something — no matter how false it is or obviously untrue it is — and you don’t respond forcefully, it’s going to hurt you.”

But Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla., said Democrats aren’t accounting for the fact that they’re out of step culturally with many Hispanic voters. 

“The values of the Democrat Party just don’t line up with Hispanic voters,” said Gimenez, whose Miami district was surveyed by the NRCC. “We’re not anti-police. We believe in the rule of law. We’re people of faith. We’re patriotic. That’s something the Democratic Party isn’t high on.”

But Gimenez’s 2020 opponent, former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, said Republicans lost the right to call themselves pro-law enforcement when a mob of Trump’s supporters rioted in the U.S. Capitol to stop the counting of the electoral votes in President Joe Biden’s win in 2020, overwhelming and attacking police officers in the process. (Gimenez countered by saying Democrats didn’t do enough to denounce looters during the 2020 uprisings after the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota.)

Mucarsel-Powell, however, acknowledged that the visibility of self-described Democratic socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York also gave Republicans an opportunity to try to portray the entire party as radical leftists. But she said she believes Republicans are making gains with Hispanic voters, and she blames Spanish-language disinformation more. 

“People are just being exposed to lies,” she said. “People are working. They’re not subscribing to the newspaper. They’re not watching local TV. They’re getting their news from their phones. And there are a lot of lies.”

Yvonne Gutierrez, the managing director of the Democratic-aligned group Latino Victory, said she didn’t believe Republican gains were too alarming for the party, but she acknowledged having reservations about “the disinformation campaign the GOP has been running quite significantly and consistently ... that has had an impact.”

That position, however, drew an instant rebuke from Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a Miami Republican whose district was also surveyed by the NRCC.

“What Democrats are saying is we’re a bunch of fools: ‘Oh, these people are misinformed because they can neither read or write,’” Salazar said. “It’s the economy, stupid. Don’t you remember that phrase? And also, we’re Americans. We’re not socialists. But unfortunately, what we’re hearing from a sector of the Democratic Party, we're hearing people who are scaring us.”