Nation & World

Hispanic voters are growing in power. Why are Democratic candidates ignoring them?

Jose Robinson Palacios and former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro lead a group of supporters Nov. 12 as Robinson Pa
Jose Robinson Palacios and former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro lead a group of supporters Nov. 12 as Robinson Palacios arrives for a check-in at the Homeland Security office in Cedar Rapids. Robinson Palacios, an Afro-Honduran refugee seeking asylum, was accompanied by the former secretary and presidential candidate. While Castro has decried the lack of diversity in early voting states like Iowa, he also has failed to gain much traction in public opinion polls in states with a higher ration of Latino voters. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

When the Latino Community Foundation sent questionnaires to Democratic presidential candidates asking where they stood on issues like education, health care and immigration, the result was hardly what it anticipated: silence.

Even after the deadline was extended, nine out of 15 candidates didn’t submit answers, including former Vice President Joe Biden.

When the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country’s oldest Hispanic civil rights group, invited Pete Buttigieg to events in Milwaukee and Des Moines, the South Bend, Ind., mayor declined.

When the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials held a summit this summer, Biden and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., did not attend. Both also passed on a second chance in the fall.

“It’s always scheduling,” said NALEO chief executive Arturo Vargas of their explanations. “But you know, scheduling is a reflection of your priorities.”

Hispanics are increasingly influential in the Democratic Party, but leaders and activists say they feel ignored and misunderstood by candidates who have spent much of their time focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire, predominantly white states.

They are bluntly calling on party leaders to reconsider the voting order in four years — a call made last month by former Housing Secretary Julian Castro during a stop in Cedar Rapids.

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Last week’s debate in California, an important primary state where the population is nearly 40 percent Latino, put an exclamation point on their outrage. Many had hoped it would showcase the rising influence of Hispanics. Instead, the only one in the race — Castro — failed to qualify for the debate stage.

Many fear that Democrats are blowing an opportunity to boost Hispanic voter turnout in the general election.

Shifting demographics and a backlash to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have given Democrats an opening in diversifying battleground states from Arizona to Pennsylvania. But officials fear a primary that often feels far removed from Hispanic communities could blunt excitement for the November election.

“At this stage in the game, we are well beyond talking about missed opportunities,” said Clarissa Martínez de Castro, deputy vice president for policy and advocacy at UnidosUS, the country’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group. “This is seriously in the territory of political malpractice.”

Some Latino leaders and voters are more confident that anger with Trump will drive turnout in November. Still, they want to see their party’s candidates do more to connect with Hispanics.

Although Latino leaders are demanding greater attention, Hispanic voters have not rallied around Castro, either.

He has failed to crack the top tier even in heavily Latino states such California and Nevada, showing his struggles are not limited to the less diverse states.

Hispanics are projected to account for over 13 percent of eligible voters in 2020, surpassing other ethnic minority groups, according to a Pew Research Center study. After years in which Hispanic turnout disappointed Democrats, their performance in the 2018 midterm elections was up 13 percent from 2014, and about 7 in 10 voted for Democratic candidates in House races.

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But while there have been some bright spots, activists said, there has been more cause for concern than celebration.

Many activists point to Buttigieg, who has jumped to the top of the polls in Iowa. He also has struggled to appeal to African American voters.

“Buttigieg is basically nonexistent in the Latino community,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a member of the leadership of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who supported Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., before she ended her campaign.

On a trip to California last month, Buttigieg was asked at a forum hosted by Latino and immigrant groups whether he would be willing to commit troops to Mexico, with its consent, to help it fight violent drug cartels.

“There is a scenario where we could have security cooperation, as we do with countries around the world. Now, I would only order American troops into conflict if there were no other choice, if American lives were on the line,” he replied, adding he would need Mexico’s support.

When California state Sen. María Elena Durazo heard that, she was shocked, believing his words would upset Latinos. Durazo, a former union leader who is Mexican American, recalled a “bit of a gasp” in the crowd afterward.

The long history of U.S. troops being used against Mexicans in the Southwest made Buttigieg’s comments tone-deaf, in her view.

The Buttigieg campaign defended its efforts, noting the candidate met with the top official at UnidosUS and that staff members have sat down with leading Latino groups. Buttigieg recently released a plan for the Latino community that would create a fund to invest in Latino-owned businesses.

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“As Pete continues to lay out his bold vision to address our country’s challenges in a way that unites the American people, we’re going to continue to meet people where they are and work to earn their support and draw people into this movement and build a bigger coalition,” said Buttigieg spokesman Chris Meagher.

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