Working-class Latino voters in particular are moving toward Republicans
by Aaron Zitner and Bryan Mena, The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2022
LAS VEGAS—A few miles from the Las Vegas Strip, in a working-class neighborhood of one-story homes and scattered palm trees, Vania Oronoz is pushing her husband to give up his habit of voting for Democrats.
Mrs. Oronoz and many of her neighbors are shifting toward the Republican Party, a pattern that’s being replicated across the country. The move has been especially pronounced among working-class Latinos, whose votes have the potential to reshape the political parties in the same way that the movement of white, working-class voters has made them a pillar of the Republican Party.
Mrs. Oronoz, a 44-year-old immigrant from Mexico, runs a taco business with her husband and backed President Joe Biden in 2020 when she cast her first vote as a U.S. citizen. She said she has become disenchanted with Democrats over the state of inflation and school quality, as well as the party’s failure to approve a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Instead she is putting her support behind GOP candidates in this fall’s election, including the Republican trying to defeat Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the only Latina ever elected to the Senate.
Democrats “promise a lot of things that never happen,” Mrs. Oronoz said. Her husband, Humberto Oronoz, said he is hesitant to vote Republican in part because of harsh remarks former President Donald Trump has made about immigrants, but he’s open to the idea.
“If there’s a Republican that has good ideas that benefit me, I’m going to vote for that guy,” said Mr. Oronoz, 39, who delivers groceries for Uber.
Latino voters are among the fastest-growing groups in the electorate, accounting for some 16 million voters in 2020—or more than 10% of the voter pool. Once a solidly Democratic bloc, Latino voters are emerging as a swing group available to both parties, with its voting preferences splitting along economic and class lines.
In 2020, Latino voters who backed one of the two major candidates gave Mr. Biden 63% of their vote, according to a detailed analysis by Catalist, a Democratic voter-data firm. That was 8 percentage points lower than Mr. Biden’s party had won four years earlier.
The movement away from Mr. Biden’s party was even larger—some 11 points—among Latinos who are working class, commonly defined as those without a four-year college degree.
Voters and analysts say the economic boom during much of Mr. Trump’s presidency, as well as today’s high inflation under Mr. Biden, have continued to lead to a more favorable view of the Republican Party and helped change the perception in many families that it’s socially unacceptable to consider backing GOP candidates.
Both parties are watching this year’s midterms for a continued shift, an especially important question in Nevada. Nonpartisan analysts say that nearly every major race in the state is a tossup or highly competitive, including the elections for U.S. Senate, for governor and for three of the state’s four House seats.
Some 16% of the state’s voters in 2020 were Latino—the largest share of any minority group—up from 11% in 2008, Catalist found.
“The feeling that the Democratic Party almost by default is going to have the Hispanic vote—it’s not like that anymore,’’ said Ally Magalhaes, a Brazilian immigrant and aesthetician who until recently ran a spa a few miles from the Oronoz family’s home. She backed Mr. Trump in 2020 after previously voting for Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Ms. Magalhaes said faith and family were important to her—areas where she feels more aligned with Republicans. “The Republican Party is the one that represents that strongly, and that’s who we are going to be sticking with, if the Democratic Party continues to impose their progressive agenda,” she said. She moved her two children to a charter school after local leaders considered adopting a sex-education plan that she found too explicit.
In the cluster of heavily Hispanic neighborhoods around Las Vegas, including where the Oronoz family lives, many workers hold blue-collar jobs in the nearby casinos and hotels. In much of the area, well over half of households have annual income under $50,000, and college degrees are scarce.
In those neighborhoods where Latino residents account for 70% or more of the population, President Biden carried 75% of the vote, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of election results at the census-tract level. That was 7 percentage points less than Democrats had won in 2016.
Edgar Flores, a Democratic state assemblyman whose district includes many of the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods that shifted toward Mr. Trump, said Democrats haven’t made a succinct economic pitch that resonates with Latino voters. “I sincerely think that we’ve taken the community for granted politically,” Mr. Flores said. “We have a responsibility as a party to do better.”
A Wall Street Journal survey conducted in late August found that Latino voters would pick a Democratic candidate for Congress over a Republican by 11 percentage points. That’s a narrower lead than the 34-point advantage Democrats held in 2018, according to AP VoteCast.
The Journal poll also found that working-class Latino voters are more open to backing Republican candidates this fall than are those with college degrees. Latino voters without a four-year degree picked a Democratic candidate over a Republican by 6 percentage points, while Democrats led by 26 points among Latino voters with college degrees.
If the vote shift proves durable, it could undermine Democrats’ belief that the nation’s growing racial and ethnic diversity, along with the party’s gains among white voters with college degrees, would propel it to dominance in national politics. For Republicans, big gains among Latino voters could help them accomplish a goal that many in the party came to embrace during Mr. Trump’s presidency: becoming a multiracial party of the nation’s working class.
Republican support among Latino voters reached a high-water mark in recent decades during President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, with 40% or more of the vote. Mr. Bush had won the governor’s office in Texas in part by reaching out to Hispanic voters, and he continued that outreach on the national stage with steps such as arguing for eased immigration rules.
By 2012, both parties believed that Latino voters were on course to be a big and growing part of the Democratic coalition. Exit polls that year found that Mitt Romney won only 27% of the Latino vote. A panel of the Republican National Committee urged the party to present a more welcoming face to Latino and other minority voters and to support “comprehensive immigration reform,’’ a phrase that often implied backing liberalized citizenship rules for undocumented residents.
The surprise to some in the Republican Party has been that it hasn’t had to embrace liberalized immigration laws to draw more Latino voters. In interviews, many Latino voters said they support the party’s call for tougher border security, which they said would reduce human trafficking and the movement of drugs and unaccompanied minors across the border. Some Latino voters who want to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants say they are frustrated with Democrats’ efforts to do so and have grown cynical about the political system’s ability to deal with the issue at all.
Rosemary Flores, a 57-year-old community activist and former casino waitress, said she was a lifelong Democrat until 2016, when she decided that her support for stronger border security, opposition to abortion and belief in economic self-reliance meant her values aligned with the Republican Party. “Latinos are always told that they’re Democrats,” she said. “I finally said to myself that I’m a conservative, and so are other Latinos.”
She said that she believes the Republican Party supports immigrants. When Mr. Trump in 2016 called some who crossed from Mexico “rapists” and “thugs,” she said, “He meant the cartels. He meant the people hurting immigrants through human trafficking.”
This year, the two parties in Nevada are trying to cement their connection to working-class Latino voters. In the state’s marquee race, Ms. Cortez Masto, the Democratic senator, has been reminding voters she is the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant. Her TV ads feature construction and hotel workers talking about her help in passing infrastructure spending for the state and federal loans that helped businesses pay workers during Covid.
Ms. Cortez Masto, who declined an interview request, has said her Republican opponent, former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, hurt the Latino community by opposing a higher state minimum wage and by joining other states, when he was Nevada’s top legal officer, in an effort to block protections for Dreamers, people who have lived in the U.S. illegally after coming to the country as children and would meet requirements spelled out in the Dream Act to gain permanent residency status.
Mr. Laxalt said Democratic leaders hurt workers by shutting down the economy during the pandemic and with policies that he said exacerbated inflation.
“I’ve been consistent from the beginning of the race that we are the campaign that stands for the American dream,” Mr. Laxalt said in an interview. “We stand for secure borders. We stand for law and order. We stand for trying to get kids back into schools and trying to get indoctrination out.” He has said that a higher minimum wage prompts businesses to reduce hiring, and that then-President Obama overstepped his authority by moving to protect Dreamers from deportation.
Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based Republican political consultant who specializes in Hispanic outreach, said Latino voters today are acting like the white, working-class voters known as Reagan Democrats, who shifted toward the GOP in the 1980s when they thought Democrats had abandoned their economic needs.
“There’s a working-class culture that’s feeling alienated from the college-educated, white progressives that are dominating the Democratic Party,’’ Mr. Madrid said. “They’re voting on economic issues and on the cultural drift of the Democratic Party.”
Carlos Odio, co-founder of Equis Research, a Democratic-aligned firm that focuses on Latino voters, said Democrats were winning too big a share of the working-class Latino vote to conclude that the party would see a big exodus. The pandemic, which prompted Democratic leaders to order business shutdowns aimed at protecting public health, might have prompted anger at the party in 2020, he said, but he expected it to be fleeting.
Still, he said, he sees little sign that Democrats regained ground. Democrats should worry that Latino voters find it more socially acceptable to consider Republican candidates, he added.
“It’s actually the thing that should really give Democrats the most pause here,’’ he said. “If the barrier has truly gone down and stays down, then a wider realignment is possible.’’