Latino Voting Power

Jeremy Duda//September 27, 2013

Latino Voting Power

Jeremy Duda//September 27, 2013

LatinoVotingStill not enough to turn Arizona blue

It has practically become party doctrine among Arizona Democrats that the growing Latino population will turn the state purple, if not blue. To many, it’s simply a matter of when, not if.

Latino voters already have pushed other Western states into the blue column.   But despite Arizona’s massive and increasingly mobilized Latino population, the Grand Canyon State hasn’t followed the same trend as neighbors like Colorado and Nevada.

While national organizations have poured resources into Hispanic voter registration and outreach in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and other states, they have mostly bypassed Arizona. Though the state has a larger Latino population than most of the others, outside groups saw few opportunities here and decided to focus their efforts on places with better opportunities.

Colorado and Nevada both voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, and are now widely viewed as swing states. Florida and New Mexico, both of which were the target of aggressive Latino voter outreach programs, voted twice for Obama as well. Arizona, on the other hand, stayed solidly red in 2012, and voter registration numbers indicate that isn’t changing.

A professional staff, office space, advertisements and other outreach efforts require money, much of which comes from outside organizations.

Francisco Heredia, the national field director for Mi Familia Vota, a Latino advocacy and outreach organization, said national groups have spent the past several election cycles putting money into Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico for voter registration, get-out-the-vote drives and political infrastructure.

Heredia said things are changing in Arizona, and the resources are starting to come. But in recent years, Latino and Democratic organizations didn’t see much opportunity for a return on any investments in Arizona.

“Arizona has been left out of the resources game on a national level,” Heredia said. “They didn’t believe that Arizona is there yet.”

A winning formula

Arizona has a large Latino population that is about 30 percent of the state’s total, up from about 25 percent in 2000. But it takes more than just a large Hispanic population to convince outside groups that a state is worth the kind of massive investment that Colorado and Nevada saw.

Heredia said competitiveness, or at least the promise of it, is needed before national organizations will commit much in the way of money or effort.

The first major national mobilization effort directed at Latino voters was in 2008, said Andres Ramirez, president of the Ramirez Group, a Las Vegas-based political consulting firm. But with U.S. Sen. John McCain running as the Republican nominee for president, national groups assumed Arizona was out of contention, and spent accordingly.

But 2008 wasn’t the beginning of the story. Local officials and organizations in Colorado and Nevada had been paving the way for years.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid began a substantial Latino outreach program in Nevada in the 1990s, Ramirez said. At the time, few people considered the Latino community a major force in politics in Nevada or most neighboring states.

“Back in the mid-90s, people used to look at Reid thinking he was crazy for investing so much money and resources into the Latino community. And now they’re looking at him and saying he was a genius,” Ramirez said.

By 2004, Latino political clout was widely viewed as growing, but not enough to swing an election, Ramirez said. Not until 2008 did politicos view Hispanic voters as the key to Democratic electoral fortunes.

Lucy Flores, a Democratic state assemblywoman from Nevada, said Reid played a major role in building up the state’s Democratic Party, strengthening its efforts to engage the Latino community.

The combination of factors made Nevada ripe for a Democrat in 2008, Flores said. National groups were able to take advantage of the infrastructure that was already in place.

“It’s not just about having the numbers,” Flores said. “If it were just about having the numbers, then obviously Arizona would be much more influential in this process than it is. It’s about having those numbers, but then also having the infrastructure and support necessary to engage those numbers. I think that some of that is missing in Arizona.”

Colorado had a combination of factors working in its favor. Colorado state Rep. Crisanta Duran said the state had political infrastructure in place that dated to the civil rights battles of the 1960s.

The state started electing more strong Latino officials who pushed for more outreach, and had high-profile, competitive races, such as the 2004 U.S. Senate campaign of then-Attorney General Ken Salazar, that drove Latino turnout, Duran said. And local organizations put a lot of work into Latino outreach as well.

Several factors played into Colorado’s Latino surge, Duran said. But the biggest key is getting people out to vote, she said, which requires good candidates who inspire people.

Duran said national attention followed local success that left a strong infrastructure in place. In the last two presidential elections, Obama’s campaign heavily targeted Arizona, which in turn helped increase Latino turnout even more. But on a presidential level, national groups viewed Arizona as a lost cause.

“In terms of Colorado, I do think some of our past victories, like … with Ken Salazar and some of the other ones that have been done here, have been helpful to having a structure in place,” Duran said.

Brendan Walsh, the organizing director for the Arizona chapter of Unite Here, a national labor organization that is heavily engaged in Latino outreach, said Arizona has lacked statewide candidates who inspire Latino voters. The closest the state had in recent years was Richard Carmona’s 2012 U.S. Senate campaign, he said. But Carmona got into the race late and ran as a moderate, which was strategically helpful in making the race so competitive, but didn’t really motivate Latinos.

“What’s been the missing piece is we don’t have a Raul Castro to galvanize the Latino vote in a way that also appeals to more white progressive voters,” said Walsh, referring to the Arizona governor in the 1970s.

It’s redder in Arizona

Luis Heredia, a former executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said Latino voting strength has been on the rise in Arizona. After all, Latinos made up 18 percent of the state’s electorate in 2012, up from 16 percent in 2008 and 12 percent in 2004.

But for Latinos to turn the state blue requires more than just Latinos, Heredia said. In Colorado and New Mexico, other demographics, such as women and suburbanites, have voted in higher numbers and have voted with Latinos more often than in Arizona, he said.

“The coalition to win requires other demographics also to move and also to increase,” Heredia said.

The problem for Latino Democrats in Arizona may be that other voters in the state are simply more conservative. Tim Sifert, a spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party, said many people move to Arizona later in life to start families and careers.

“As people start to grow older, they start families and get their careers going. We think they tend to become more conservative,” Sifert said.

That would help explain why Arizona is a far redder state than neighbors with similar Latino turnout. In Nevada, which voted twice for Obama, elected Democratic majorities in both chambers of its Legislature and narrowly re-elected an embattled Reid, Latino turnout was 18 percent in 2012, mirroring Arizona’s numbers. Hispanic voters were 17 percent of Florida’s total turnout last year. And in Colorado, Latino voters totaled only 14 percent.

Walsh of union-based Unite Here said many of the people who move to Arizona, which has a well-earned reputation as a state of transplants, have a more “libertarian mindset.” Traditionally, many are older voters as well, he said.

Labor unions played a major role in the rise of Latino voting power in other states, Walsh said. Progressive voters were major allies as well.

“There’s more of a coalition between people who are not Latinos … whose interests align with Latinos more broadly,” Walsh said.

But Arizona doesn’t have as a strong a progressive base as Colorado and Nevada, Walsh said. In places where Latinos have flexed serious political muscles, such as Las Vegas or Los Angeles, there’s a strong coalition between Latino and progressive blocs, he said.

And Arizona doesn’t have a very vigorous labor union presence either, he said. Until recently, Walsh said, the last major effort to mobilize Latinos in Arizona came in the 1970s, when Castro was governor and mining unions were stronger.

Republicans have taken steps to court Latinos as well. Former president George W. Bush saw success with Latino voters, and national GOP organizations are reaching out more and more.

Sifert said Democrats shouldn’t just take it for granted that Latinos will always side with their party.

“It’s a bit of a leap of logic to assume that Latinos are always going to be a presence in the Democrat party,” he said. “Our challenge is to get the Republican message out to all voters, Latinos or not Latinos. We have the same kind of a universal message that we think should appeal to everyone.”

Is the tide turning?

Though Arizona has been overlooked in the past, Democrats are hopeful that things are changing. Local groups have become better organized and have mobilized more, and national resources have followed.

In the past several years, especially since the passage of SB1070, Arizona’s strict first-in-the-nation illegal immigration law, Latinos have been mobilizing.  Much of the organizing has been at the local level.

The voter outreach group Team Awesome was hailed by the left for increasing Latino voter turnout by 400 percent in Phoenix City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela’s district in 2011, and doubling turnout in the city as a whole during that election cycle.

Petra Falcon, Promise Arizona’s executive director, said Arizona-based groups have become more sophisticated in recent years about voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts. They’ve registered more voters, are signing up people to the state’s Permanent Early Voting List and beginning their get-out-the-vote efforts as soon as those early ballots hit people’s mailboxes.

SB1070 was the impetus for more Latino outreach, Falcon said. Promise Arizona was founded during the 2010 “firestorm” over the immigration law.

“Frankly,” Falcon said, “we’re angry that this state would actually even be ground zero for immigration reform and our Legislature could produce such bad bills. And that’s been a while in coming.”

More competitive campaigns such as Carmona’s race against Jeff Flake or Paul Penzone’s challenge to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio have helped energize Latinos and Democrats, Falcon said. Walsh said the successful recall campaign against former Sen. Russell Pearce, the sponsor of SB1070, provided momentum as well.

Walsh said local Latino outreach groups are now putting more of a focus on finding candidates to run for office. As a result, he said, a new crop of up-and-coming leaders is emerging.

“It’s not retreads. Sometimes I feel like the Arizona political scene can be like pro football coaches, kind of like a carousel with the same names kind of buzzing around,” Walsh said. “Over the next 10 years, I think we’re going to see some new and exciting names emerge out of the fights that are going on now.”

Seeking the next battleground

National organizations have taken notice. Now that they have achieved success in states like Colorado and Nevada, Ramirez said national groups are looking for their next battleground, and Arizona is a prime candidate.

Mi Familia Vota, which has been in the state since 2004, moved its national headquarters to Arizona last year. Other nationally funded groups, such as Promise Arizona, have become more active in the state as well. Walsh said the Four Freedoms Fund, an immigrant outreach group, spent more than $1 million to get more Arizona Latinos signed up for the Permanent Early Voting List.

Francisco Heredia of Mi Familia Vota said there are about 250,000 unregistered Latino voters in Arizona. The Center for American Progress pegs the number at around 400,000. Heredia said Arizona’s Latino population is young, which provides a lot of hope for the future.

Ramirez said he understands why people are skeptical about whether Latinos and Democrats in Arizona can turn the tide. Some Arizona politicos say they’ve been hearing such predictions since the 1960s, and they’ve never come to pass.

But things may truly be changing here in way that’s never happened before, Ramirez said.

“When you look at the shift for potential, Arizona presents the best case,” Ramirez said. “I think it’s natural for people to feel skeptical because it hasn’t happened yet. But just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”


Latino population, 2011

Arizona: 1,950,000

Percent of overall population: 30

New Mexico: 972,000

Percent: 27

Nevada: 738,000

Percent: 27

Colorado: 1,071,000

Percent: 21

Source: Pew Hispanic Center