If Cliff Aragon’s take on politics reflects what other Latinos in Colorado are thinking as the mid-term election looms just over four months away, it could be an early and unwelcome warning sign for Democrats.
“He’s doing a horrible job,” the unaffiliated voter in Adams County’s Sherrelwood neighborhood, just south of West 84th Avenue, said of President Joe Biden.
Aragon was on a list of homes being targeted Tuesday evening by a team of GOP volunteers, wearing matching red T-shirts, who believe that face-to-face engagement with a segment of the population historically aligned with Democrats is a crucial campaign strategy.
“You’re seeing a lot of heavily dissatisfied Hispanic voters,” said Helder Toste, field and coalition director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as he rounded up a small group of volunteers behind a Dutch Bros coffee shop near Interstate 25. “They’re worried about crime and kitchen table issues.”
The conversations in Adams County on Tuesday centered on a concern that is universal these days: inflation, especially the price at the pump. Biden, said Damon Rodriguez, who has lived on Louise Drive for the last 2 1/2 years, “could be doing better.”
Maria Guzman-Weese, a volunteer door-knocker for Colorado Republicans, said Latinos are as impacted as anyone in the current economy — and that opens a real opportunity to get them into the GOP fold.
“We have the same concerns — it’s pocketbook issues like the economy and our children’s education,” Guzman-Weese said.
Tuesday’s canvassing represents what GOP leaders say is a new focus on Hispanic Colorado voters.
“We’ve gotten a lot better at saying, ‘We need to elevate minority voices,’” said Toste, who broke out into fluent Spanish at several homes where there were no English speakers, handing out a flyer and urging residents to vote.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee picked Colorado as one of a handful of states for what it dubbed Operación Vamos — an effort to make deeper inroads with Hispanic residents styled after success the party saw in Texas. The others are Nevada, Washington, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Party officials said it is spending seven-figures on the effort, though they didn’t break it down by state.
“Reaching out to those Hispanic voters early in the cycle, not just when we’re asking for their vote, but when we can actually have real conversations about issues and what matters to them has really been effective across the nation,” Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown said.
The party plans that outreach as a two-pronged effort: Ongoing door-knocking campaigns, like this week’s, and opening community centers in Hispanic neighborhoods after the dust settles from the June 28 primary election, she said.
They aim to meet those voters in their communities, versus expecting them to come to the party, and hear the issues dearest to them — with a dose of highlighting what Burton Brown describes as “radical” policies pushed by Democrats, from Biden to Sen. Michael Bennet. While Operación Vamos is nominally about the U.S. Senate, officials hope the effort will bear fruit down the ballot.
Burton Brown declined to say how many voters they hope to sway to change the outcome of elections, but noted that nearly 40% of the 8th Congressional District is Latino, the most of any congressional district in the state. Burton Brown also pointed to Lakewood. In the 7th Congressional District’s largest city, 22.7% of residents identify as Latino, up from 14.5% 20 years ago, according to U.S. Census data.
In what could be a tight election year, particularly with new congressional districts, swinging just a few percentage points worth of voters could tilt the state’s representation in the state Capitol and Washington, D.C. And given the economic climate, and the country’s history of backlash against the president’s party in midterm elections, Republicans are hoping to open as many doors to their party — literally and metaphorically — as they can.
Democrats have a shrinking edge
Latino Coloradans have generally leaned Democratic in recent elections. In 2016, they voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by nearly 2-to-1 margins, helping her to secure the state in her failed bid for the White House.
In the 2020 presidential election, Latino voters still swung for Democrat Joe Biden but by slightly narrower margins: About 58% to 38%, according to a New York Times exit poll. In the state legislature, almost all Hispanic and Latino members are Democrats.
“I am proud of the work our Latino initiative does in reaching out to Hispanic and Latino voters statewide,” Patricia Barela Rivera, the Colorado Democratic Party executive committee’s vice chair for communications, said in a statement. “We have a very focused strategy of going out and talking to the Latino community in all 64 counties, especially in areas with a high Latino population. We’re extremely excited that the new Congressional District 8 will represent the most Latinos of any other district. Voters know that Democrats are the party of inclusivity and the working class, and Dems will continue to make our case to residents of CD8 and across the state.”
In Greeley, long part of a very Republican congressional district but now in the dead-even 8th Congressional District, Sonny Subia isn’t so sure. Subia is the state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, LULAC.
The outreach described by the Republican Party, in his experience, is the best way to reach Latino voters. A tough pill for the avowed Democrat, who fears his own party is missing the boat this election cycle.
“It’s scary,” Subia said. “I’m waiting for Democrats to get around and out front of the issues. I’m worried by the time they do, it will be too late.”
While Subia is open about his personal political preference, as LULAC director he simply wants Latino Coloradans engaged in the process and to vote. And as a nonprofit, LULAC doesn’t advocate for specific candidates, just for people to participate. He’s adopted a motto to underscore it: Educate to motivate to participate.
New district, new opportunities
This election cycle poses a particular opportunity for Latino Coloradans to make their voices heard, Subia said. But up in Greeley, where he regularly sees trucks fly “Let’s Go Brandon” flags and stickers of Joe Biden exclaiming “I did that” adorn gas pumps, he worries years of Republican-dominated politics lulled some Latinos into thinking their vote didn’t matter.
But the new district is the most evenly split in the state, according to state data. Communicating that the new district reflects a new opportunity for representation falls under the educate part of his motto, he said.
“The Latino community is apathetic because they’ve been in (the 4th Congressional District) for so long,” Subia said. “They don’t realize they’re in CD8 and really have a chance to flex that Latino muscle.”
Neither party can take his community’s participation or vote for granted, he said.
Safety and the availability of guns — particularly after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 90% of the district is Latino, and the racist massacre at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store — is a concern for many of his peers, he said. Paying close to $5 per gallon for gas is also a signal that something’s not right, he said.
He’s not sure how many in his community trust the Republican Party. He cites campaign messages conflating Latinos at large with MS-13, former Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo’s fervent anti-immigration stances, and accusations that immigrants voted illegally to tilt the election against Trump as examples — but it also wouldn’t take a sea change among Latinos to tilt the electoral math in the GOP’s favor.
It’s also a danger to treat the broad umbrella of Latinos as all having the same background and undergirding beliefs. Cuban Americans in Florida and Latinos from the Southwest will have different lived and cultural experiences and beliefs, he said.
“Get Latinos to the polls”
Metropolitan State University of Denver political science professor Robert Preuhs estimates that just a 10% swing among Latinos would lead to a win for Republicans. He called Operación Vamos “a proactive reaction to some long-standing critiques of the Republican Party over a lack of Latino outreach and messaging.”
Determining if the program is successful, or successfully run, won’t be as simple as exit polls, he said. He also noted that political preference polls can vary widely among Latinos. However, the outreach described by the GOP could still be a road map for any political campaign.
“It’s what campaigns need to do to gain Latino support,” Preuhs, who has specifically studied Latino political engagement, said. “That is the grassroots organizing, door-to-door knocking, Spanish language, community-sensitive messaging. Regardless if it’s Democrats or Republicans, that’s what seems to get Latinos to the polls.”
This is also a potentially key moment to reach that population, Preuhs said. Inflation and gas prices are emptying wallets, and it doesn’t feel like Democrats in power have made much headway on immigration policy, he said. In a summer 2021 survey of Latino Coloradans, immigration, jobs and the economy were the top issues, with discrimination and racial justice following soon after.
“The bottom line in this election for Latinos, and everybody else, is going to be their bottom line,” Preuhs said.
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