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Not A Monolith

How Democrats Are Holding Onto Latino Voters in Arizona

As the support of this critical voting bloc has ebbed elsewhere, the Grand Canyon State is providing a lesson on how to win it back.

Leah Millis/Getty Images
Arizona Representative and Congressional Hispanic Caucus fundraising chair Ruben Gallego

There’s little question among Democratic politicians and operatives that the party needs to improve its outreach to Latino voters—not with the spate of recent articles and polls highlighting how Latino voters are trending toward Republicans, anyway, particularly in Florida and southern Texas. This has caused significant hand-wringing among Democrats, although perhaps not enough soul-searching.

“There has been, I think, very little work done by the national party to keep those competitive,” Representative Ruben Gallego told me about Republican-leaning Latino voters in Florida and Texas. “You don’t really see active campaigns year-in, year-out by the politicians down there. This time you do, you see it, but who knows how much damage has been done in the meantime.”

Gallego, who represents a district in the Phoenix area, is the chair of BOLD PAC, the fundraising arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He has also been vocal in calling out how the Democratic Party has traditionally taken Latino voters for granted.

Although political trends are important to note, they can also be reductive, treating demographics as monoliths rather than communities. Latinos vote differently depending on age, religion, gender, and cultural background—much like any other bloc of voters. If you brand a Democratic candidate as a “socialist,” it may be a more effective way to influence a Cuban American voter in Miami than it would be as a message to reach a Mexican American voter in Arizona.

Latinos comprise roughly 30 percent of the population in Arizona but represent only 19 percent of the share of registered voters. Nonetheless, Latino voters will play a critical role in the upcoming elections in the state; the NALEO Education Fund projects that the share of Latino voters will be nearly 23 percent in November, a 77 percent increase from the 2014 midterms.

Latinos were also key to President Joe Biden’s victory in Arizona, which he won by less than a percentage point. Although more Latinos supported former President Donald Trump in Maricopa County, the state’s largest county and the home to Phoenix and its suburbs, more Latinos statewide supported Biden in 2020 than they did Hillary Clinton in 2016. How are Democrats bucking the national trend in Arizona? The party arguably has a stronger ground game here than it does in other states.

Arizona has long been a Republican stronghold, and it would be a mistake to classify it as a blue state. But the growing strength of Democratic candidates and causes has its origin in 2010, when the state implemented Senate Bill 1070, a controversial law that allowed law enforcement to racially profile people to question them about their immigration and citizenship status. The intense backlash this law spawned led to the formation of groups focused on engaging Latino voters, such as the grassroots organization Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA. This began a decade-long investment that contributed to Biden’s victory in the state as well as several other Democratic wins.

“There’s been active participation in terms of voter registration, political activation, people really understanding how to talk to the community here, how to get them out. And I think that has made the biggest difference why you don’t see the slide that’s happening in other states,” Gallego argued.

A recent poll by UnidosUS and Mi Familia Vota found that the top issues for Latino voters in Arizona included inflation, crime and gun violence, the economy, and abortion. The poll also found that 54 percent approved of Biden, and 53 percent said that they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their congressional elections, although 62 percent of Latino voters in Arizona also said that they believed the country was on the wrong track. The issues may be more important to Latino voters in Arizona than party identification. Arizona is unique in that it has roughly as many independent voters as it does Democrats and Republicans, a trend that also largely holds for Latino voters in the state, although they are more likely to be Democrats, according to NALEO.

Carolina Rodriguez-Greer, the state director of Mi Familia Vota Arizona, a civic engagement organization working to mobilize Latino voter registration and participation, expressed frustration with the narrative that the Republican Party is scooping up Latino voters.

“Latino voters in Arizona are very astute. They’re seeing the candidates beyond the ‘R,’ ‘D,’ or ‘I’ next to their name,” said Rodriguez-Greer. “​​I think this rhetoric around Latinos feeling uninspired by any political party all of a sudden means that Latinos are very inspired by the Republican Party—I don’t know that we have enough information to make that type of leap. I think it’s a lazy approach to try and understand such a unique demographic.”

Rodriguez-Greer said that Mi Familia Vota Arizona was working to “make the midterms popular,” focusing on voter education—that is, explaining the difference between a primary and general election—and engagement, with the goal of knocking on 200,000 doors before the election. Mi Familia Vota Arizona also produces literature in Spanish as well as English.

She also noted that newly naturalized citizens may play an important role in the upcoming election. More than 63,000 citizens naturalized between 2016 and 2020, according to a September report by the National Partnership for New Americans. “Because we know what it costs us, because only we will know what it took to leave behind our families, and the price we paid for this United States citizenship that so many people take for granted, it means we will never miss an election,” said Rodriguez-Greer, who emigrated from Mexico as a child.

Bilingual literature and campaign advertisements are critical to engaging Latino voters, said Eva Burch, a candidate for state Senate in one of Arizona’s most competitive legislative districts. Burch highlighted how many volunteers and staff for her campaign speak Spanish with voters when they go canvassing.

“I always have a translator-interpreter with me at the doors to make sure that if I knock on a door and it’s clear that someone’s not comfortable with English, or that they are incapable of having a meaningful conversation with me in a language that’s not their own, I’m providing that opportunity for them to be able to have that dialogue,” Burch told me. She is running in the newly drawn 9th legislative district, which is 38 percent Latino.

If Latinos are leaving the Democratic Party, it may be more due to disillusionment than any great passion for the Republican platform, Burch argued. “What I’ve experienced is more along the lines of people feeling disenfranchised, people feeling like they don’t have a say or a voice, and not necessarily leaving the party because their values are more closely aligned elsewhere but because they aren’t being given the opportunity to be heard and to be a part of the process,” Burch said.

Some statewide campaigns have also been working to engage Latino voters. Senator Mark Kelly began running Spanish-language radio ads as early as March, and his campaign launched Latinos for Kelly in June. Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake launched Latinos for Lake in March, although The Arizona Mirror noted that its Twitter page did not begin posting until July. Gallego predicted that the work that Kelly’s campaign had done to engage Latino voters, along with the presence of a Latino candidate running for secretary of state, Adrian Fontes, would help turn out the Latino vote in November.

Regardless of whatever actions candidates take, grassroots organizations will work to turn out Latino voters and cement their place as a deciding demographic in the most critical contests in a key swing state. “We’ve been through it. We are the people whose families got separated by S.B. 1070,” Rodriguez-Greer said about Latino voters in Arizona. “This is our home. We’re like that cactus that survives in these arid lands. We know we’re Arizona too.”