BY ALBERT HUNT, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR – 08/07/22 11:30 AM ET
There is no better test this year of whether Republicans are making substantial inroads with Latino voters, once solidly Democratic, than Nevada.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), the only Latina in the U.S. Senate, is the party’s most endangered incumbent. Hispanics comprise as much as 20 percent of the Nevada electorate. She needs to win them almost 2 to 1 to stave off Republican challenger, Adam Laxalt, the former state attorney general and grandson of Nevada political legend, the late Paul Laxalt, who was a governor and a U.S. Senator.
Republicans, including Donald Trump in 2020, have cut into Democrats’ advantage with Hispanic voters, particularly non-college educated males.
“We always thought that if we got more Latinos to vote, the Democratic vote would grow exponentially,” notes Ana Iparraguirre, who has studied the data on Latino voting for the Democratic polling firm, GBAO Strategies. “In 2020 we got more Latinos to vote, but support for Democrats did not grow.”
There is a debate — using different data and analyses — over how much of a shift there has been to Republicans, and why. The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein, who has followed this as closely and carefully as any journalist, concludes: “The best evidence in polling and election results suggests the claim of a fundamental shift among non-college educated Latino voters is, at best, wildly premature.” At a minimum, he suggests, there is a small shift.
Republicans have argued that the patriotism and cultural conservatism of Latinos will redound to the GOP’s advantage. That’s questionable. Latinos generally mirror other Democrats in views on social issues like abortion and guns, says Michelle Mayorga, also a GBAO strategist. “Many Catholic Hispanics are pro-choice on abortion.”
However, Democrats have been hurt when linked, often unfairly, with the slogans pushed by the small left wing of the party, such as “defund the police” or “open borders.” In Florida, especially with second- and third-generation voters with roots in South American countries, charges that Democrats are socialists resonated.
Moreover, Ms. Iparraguirre says, while the big social issues aren’t hurting, some of the “woke” stuff, like using gender neutral “Latinx” may be: “This is definitely not something they self-identify as.”
The main driver of any change, most experts venture, is economics. Most working-class Latinos did well during the Trump years, at least before COVID hit. That apparently affected some voting habits.
Republicans are counting on an economy with raging inflation this year. The heaviest concentrations of Latino votes are in large states: California, Texas and Florida, as well as New Mexico. Yet they comprise as much as 4 percent to 5 percent in places like Georgia, North Carolina and Wisconsin — and could make the difference in tight races.
The swing states with the largest Latino vote are Arizona and Nevada, both with competitive Senate, gubernatorial and down-ballot contests this November. In Nevada, the GOP is encouraged by voter registration gains that have cut into the Democrats’ advantage.
Laxalt, predictably, focuses heavily on inflation and high gas prices. These really hurt the sizeable working-class citizens in this geographically large state.
The Republicans also are making a concerted effort to cut into the Democrats’ support among Latinos by running Spanish language commercials and with a dedicated “Latinos for Laxalt” organization.
Republicans may have been handed another break with fissures among the Democrats. The Nevada Democratic Party, led by the late Sen. Harry Reid, used to be one of the most effective state parties in the country. Last year, the left-wing Democratic Socialists staged a coup, and they now run the party. The former — and more formidable — faction has set up a parallel organization.
Abortion may offset some GOP advantages on the economy. Three decades ago, Nevada voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum protecting the right to abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy; after that, it is protected only if the mother’s life or health is endangered.
Cortez Masto is strongly pro-choice, while Laxalt, previously an anti-abortion hard liner, is equivocating and squirming. She is making abortion rights a campaign centerpiece, charging that Laxalt, as attorney general, sought to limit birth control access — and, as a senator, would vote for a federal abortion ban.
She has been running ads in Spanish targeting Latino voters for more than four months and has held numerous events with the community.
The Democratic Senator — according to Jon Ralston, the longtime journalistic sage on state politics with the Nevada Independent — is a stronger candidate, has raised a lot more money and is more disciplined. He says Laxalt, a big Trump supporter who has embraced the “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, “is really a terrible candidate. He’s no Paul Laxalt.”
In what could be the tightest Senate race in the country, it comes down to the better candidate versus the more favorable conditions — with the outcome in Latino hands.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.