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OPINION

Latino voters may determine control of the US Senate

A sizeable chunk of the Latino electorate is persuadable. Democrats had better wake up and act accordingly.

A supporter holds up a sign calling on Latinos to vote for Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff for US Senate during a rally in Lilburn, Ga., Dec. 7, 2020. The rally was part of an effort to register and mobilize voters in Georgia's growing Latino population.Jeff Amy/Associated Press

Do Democrats really have a Latino problem?

That seems to be one of the dominant questions ahead of the November midterm elections. The answer, though, is complicated: It’s both no and yes. That’s because the data paint a more complicated story, according to a new report that looked at how Latinos voted in five states in November, 2020. There is a complex dynamic at play that cannot be reduced to the single definitive narrative that Latino voters are running away from the Democratic Party, which historically has embraced them and vice versa.

While that shift didn’t happen across the board, the report by the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Institute confirms an undeniable emerging trend from 2020, which aligns with previous post-mortem analyses of the 2020 presidential election: Latino voters are the new swing voters. But the Democratic Party seems to be in denial about this crucial insight.

Democrats had better wake up and start acting accordingly when it comes to engaging the significant bloc of swing voters within the Hispanic electorate, who may determine the balance of power in the US Senate.

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What is reinforcing the prevailing narrative that Latino voters are shifting increasingly toward the Republican Party? Mainly, it’s what happened in certain regions in the 2020 presidential election: Latino voters in South Texas and in certain parts of Florida supported Donald Trump in greater numbers than they did in 2016.

But the UCLA researchers found that Hispanic voters split their ballot at a significant rate in 2020. In key US Senate races in Arizona, Colorado, and Georgia, Latino voters supported the Democratic candidate over the Republican one by at least a 3-1 margin; meanwhile, in US Senate contests in New Mexico and Texas, the margin was roughly 2-1. Conversely, the majority of white voters in those six contests supported both Trump and the GOP Senate candidates.

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Additionally, in all states that researchers analyzed except for Texas, the Democratic Senate candidates outperformed Joe Biden among Hispanic voters. The salient conclusion? Despite major Latino support for Democrats, there is a significant number of Latino voters who are swing voters.

“They are convincible, you can go out and reach out to them, and they’ll think about their vote carefully,” Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas, director of research at the Latino Policy & Politics Institute and one of the report’s authors, said in an interview. “They will eventually make a decision based on what resonates the most with them, but also on who engages them the most.”

It’s really a no-brainer, which is why it’s astonishing to see some Democratic campaigns still using the same old playbook. “Investment in reaching out to Latino voters is usually the lowest,” he said, and it’s typically based on strategies that don’t work anymore, such as the assumption that anti-immigrant Republican attacks are enough to turn out Latinos or having a one-size-fits-all approach to Latino engagement without recognizing inherent differences between, say, voters of Venezuelan descent and second-generation Mexican-Americans. “The Texas surge toward Trump [in 2020] seems to have been because there were so many voters there who had not voted before and who were engaged successfully by the Republican party . . . They would have stayed home if they hadn’t been engaged.”

Consider a major lesson from Georgia, where a little over 175,000 Latinos voted in the 2020 elections, representing about 3.6 percent of the state’s voters — yet they still played a pivotal role in the presidential election, which was decided in Georgia by fewer than 12,000 votes.

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Then there were the closely fought US Senate races there, which were key in deciding control of the US Senate. Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock prevailed over incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Roughly 80 percent of Hispanic voters supported Ossoff and Warnock, while two thirds of them voted for Biden (comparatively speaking, less than 20 percent of white voters there chose any of the three Democrats.)

What explains such an impactful split? According to Dominguez-Villegas, there has been a sustained grassroots engagement of Latino voters since the 2018 gubernatorial election. “When Stacey Abrams ran for governor, her campaign set up a whole infrastructure” to organize the Hispanic electorate in a meaningful way, he said. These impressive voter engagement campaigns, and the candidates’ own campaigns, were “really successful at convincing Latino voters that the Senate races were particularly important. They had messaging that resonated with Latino voters much more than Biden’s campaign did.”

In other words, what works is early and sustained engagement that includes the right messaging and cultural competent voter mobilization strategies that recognize differences in Latino voters. It should go without saying, and yet here we are: Neither party should take the Latino electorate for granted. Nor should Democrats presume that Hispanic voters will show up just based on fear or on attacks on the Latino community from the other side.

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With close Senate races in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Nevada this November, Latino voters could very well tip the scale in determining which party controls the US Senate — again. With 2024 in mind, Democrats need to pay attention to the 2020 lessons from places like Georgia.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.