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A Republican strategist and a Bernie Sanders adviser find common ground: spurring Latino voters to defeat Trump

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden spoke at a rally organized by Mi Familia Vota, a national Latino voting group, in Las Vegas on Jan. 11.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden spoke at a rally organized by Mi Familia Vota, a national Latino voting group, in Las Vegas on Jan. 11.JOE BUGLEWICZ/NYT

WASHINGTON — Republican strategist Mike Madrid and progressive Democratic consultant Chuck Rocha have spent much of their decades in politics on opposite sides of the same cause, helping campaigns reach, court, and organize Latino voters.

But in recent months they’ve formed an unlikely alliance fueled by a new shared goal: Preventing President Trump’s reelection by ensuring his campaign does not lure more support from the crucial and growing Latino slice of the electorate.

“We had never worked together before,” said Madrid, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a political action committee of current and former Republicans aiming to take down Trump. “Now we’re calling each other going, ‘Are you as worried as I am? Yeah.’”

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“If Donald Trump wins again, I have three staffers who might get deported,” Rocha said of his collaboration with Madrid. “I don’t have the privilege to walk away from this election.”

For months, Latino strategists and outreach groups have urged Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to hire more Latino staffers and pump up his outreach and advertising to connect with what is expected this year to become the nation’s largest bloc of voters of color. But while Trump’s campaign has invested heavily in courting Latino voters, the Biden team has been slow to raise money and spend money and mobilize, first amid a crowded Democratic primary field, then during the pandemic.

The work of closing the gap has largely fallen to outside voter outreach organizations, political action groups, and independent strategists including Madrid and Rocha.

“Without the independent side, Democrats and progressives would be outspent on digital, radio, and television ad buys, according to what is publicly reported from the Biden campaign,” said Stephanie Valencia, a special assistant to former president Obama who went on to co-found the progressive polling firm EquisLabs Research.

Madrid and Rocha, both Mexican-American and top political strategists long in each other’s orbits, were brought together through mutual friends. The pair now jumps on weekly calls with each other and members of other Latino voter outreach organizations. They’re not the only ones sharing information and coordinating ad buys in key battlegrounds. Rocha is working closely with groups such as the Latino Victory US Project, Mi Familia Vota, and EquisLabs.

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Their alliance is emblematic of the unwieldy tent being built by Democrats as volunteers, activists, and strategists across much of the political spectrum set aside their differences, if only temporarily, to take on what they see as the larger threat to democracy: Trump and Trumpism.

The Latino electorate — a diverse population of people mostly of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban descent along with fast-growing groups of Venezuelans, Dominicans and Guatemalans — is projected to make up about 13 percent of all eligible voters, or roughly 32 million people in the November election.

A lifelong Republican, Madrid has been studying Latinos as an emerging political force in the Southwest since he completed his senior thesis at Georgetown University in 1997. He’s worked on Republican and Democratic campaigns in Texas, California, and Florida, as a portion of the voter bloc, largely evangelical Christians and military families, became a small but ardent Republican constituency.

He said he still holds many of those fundamental conservative views on small government and fiscal policy. But the Republican Party has mostly abandoned those under Trump, he said, as it has adopted racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, rendering many Latino Republicans like himself politically homeless.

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“One of the most disappointing things, having worked on issues of race in the Republican Party for 30 years, is that so many people who said this was not what the party is have demonstrated this is exactly what the party is,” Madrid said.

Rocha, one of the few Latinos to hold a top role in a presidential campaign, rose through the ranks of the United Steelworkers union and trained as an organizer under the same teachings that Cesar Chavez used to recruit farm workers in California. He ran Bernie Sanders’ wildly successful Latino outreach program in Nevada during the 2020 primaries and formed the progressive Nuestro PAC to continue the work after Sanders conceded the nomination to Biden.

At the start of the pandemic, Rocha said, he went into isolation “to literally write the book” on how to replicate the model. “Tío Bernie: The Inside Story of How Bernie Sanders Brought Latinos Into The Political Revolution,” released in August, delves into Rocha’s path into politics and the strategies that resonated with working-class Latinos and young people across the West.

Part of Sanders’ appeal were his progressive policies such as Medicare For All, Rocha said. But perhaps a larger draw was that his campaign was often the only one to call Latino voters often left out of the political conversation.

For months, Rocha and Madrid have sounded the alarm on the Biden campaign. Those concerns grew louder after the party conventions. Progressive Latino strategists decried the conspicuous absence at the Democratic convention of former US housing secretary Julián Castro, the only Latino presidential candidate in the primaries, and the limited speaking time given to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. But Democrats bashed Trump on his pandemic response and harsh immigration policies, showcasing a range of elected officials, activists, and everyday workers likely to appeal to moderate Latino voters in the middle of the country.

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Republicans at their convention sought to offer a positive spin on the Trump administration’s approach to immigration, the economy, and the pandemic. The campaign gave plum speaking slots to Black and Latino surrogates, devoted time to bashing what they called the Democrats’ “radical socialism,” touted law enforcement, and showed Trump conducting a naturalization ceremony.

Madrid said Trump is likely to get about the same amount of Latino voter support as other Republican candidates — about 30 percent of the vote.

“It is a ceiling and it is a floor,” Madrid said. “It doesn’t matter who it is. The same trajectory has existed for 25 years. There is no evidence that that is going to change.”

But the Republican imagery and showmanship could scrape off just enough support from Biden among conservative-leaning Latinos — mainly non-college educated men — in swing states such as Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, Madrid and Rocha said. The Republicans’ contradicting attacks on Biden’s record and platform, as well as voter suppression efforts, also could temper excitement among young Latinos for Biden or dissuade Latinos from voting.

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“The Republican Party doesn’t have to win the majority of the Latino vote,” Rocha said. “So, what they are doing is masterful.”

Some polls have shown Biden lagging with Latino voters in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, even falling behind where Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was in polling four years ago.

Biden’s support “is wide, but this pandemic is all-consuming for this community,” said Kristian Ramos, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic consultant who is working with national Latino organizations on turnout efforts. “It’s not that they don’t support him, it’s will they be able to vote?”

In focus groups, Latino voters say they want to hear more from Democrats on the pandemic, health care, and jobs, as Latino families have been struck hard by the coronavirus and economic collapse. And in some ways, those conversations, like the unlikely compact between Rocha and Madrid, provide a glimpse into the populist forces reshaping both parties as they fail to fully address the disparities affecting Black and Latino communities amid growing income inequality.

The Biden campaign has recently appeared to be listening. It has hired more Latino staffers, launched Latino state committees and is pouring more money — $26 million last week alone — into radio, digital, and television ads in English and Spanish that hit Trump on his coronavirus response and highlight the struggles of Latino business owners and families.

“We are being very intentional and know we have to work hard to reach every voter,” said Jennifer Molina, hired as the campaign’s Latino media director in July. “We know we cannot take anything for granted because our path to victory runs through the Latino community.”

Researchers at EquisLab first noticed Biden underperforming with Latino voters despite high anti-Trump sentiment in May. But Valencia said those polls surveyed voters before Biden consolidated the Democratic vote, the pandemic became such a harsh reality for Latino families, and California Senator Kamala Harris came on as his running mate.

“A lot has happened this summer,” Valencia said. “You are starting to see an increase in investment from them. ... Hopefully, that will yield results.”


Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.