Can Eva Longoria start a Latino political movement?


Actress and advocate Eva Longoria is helping spearhead efforts to support progressive candidates and increase the number of Latinas who seek political office as part of the Latino Victory Project. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Building on record-breaking fundraising numbers, an expanded donor base and a historically high number of Latino voters in the 2012 presidential election, a progressive Latino group is set to officially begin efforts to expand the reach of Latino voters and candidates in the 2014 cycle and beyond.

Founded by actress and advocate Eva Longoria and Henry R. Munoz III, a businessman and finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the Latino Victory Project includes the Latino Victory PAC, a political arm that will back a slate of candidates who embody “a pro-Latino agenda and values” on issues such as immigration reform, the environment, the economy and health care.

“We want to build political power within the Latino community and institutionalize what happened in 2012. There needs to be a movement right now,” Longoria said.  “We can really exercise the potential, because people see the demographic shift and are now saying, ‘Hi, Mr. Garcia. Hi, Mrs. Lopez.’ We want to make sure the names on the ballot reflect that power.”

To that end, the PAC will back a slate of seven Latino candidates — Reps. Joe Garcia (Fla.), Pete Gallegos (Tex.) and Raul Ruiz (Calif.); Amanda Renteria, who is running for Congress in California; and Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, who is running for lieutenant governor; Texas state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, who also is running for lieutenant governor; and Angel Taveras, the mayor of Providence, R.I., who is running for governor.

Charlie Crist, who is running for his old job as governor of Latino-heavy Florida, also will receive the group’s support.

Although 11 million Latinos cast ballots in the 2012 election, about 12 million stayed away, and Latinos still vote at a lower rate than any other group. That same year, Latino elected officials did make gains nationwide, in state legislatures and in Congress, with a record 31 now serving in Congress, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Yet their representation in Congress is below 17 percent, the make-up of  Latinos in the general population.

“The disparity is so stark and that’s why we have to begin developing the pipeline now, not only for 2014 but laying groundwork that will take us to 2016 and then to 2020,” said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project. “That is the year for us when Latinos will be in a position to influence the Oval Office. Our vision for 2020 is that we will have a record number of Latino voters to help influence redistricting and to help drive and influence policy for the balance of the century. This will take some time.”

But, Longoria pointed out, Latinas remain especially under-represented. No Hispanic woman has ever been elected to the U.S. Senate, nine currently serve in the House, and Republican Susana Martinez of New Mexico is the only Latina in the United States to be elected governor.

“It’s bad for Latinos overall, but Latinas are almost nonexistent in the political world,” she said. “It is my personal mission to make sure that Latinas are in the pipeline.”

The stepped-up emphasis on candidates and turnout come as both parties are clamoring for female voters and as the American electorate is on the cusp of a massive demographic shift, with non-whites set to become the majority by 2050, and Latinos, who could be 30 percent of the population if current trends continue, accounting for much of the growth.

More immediately, Democrats face an uphill climb in rallying the young, black and brown voters who made up the winning coalition for President Obama, with key Senate races being fought in red states, and few issues resonating viscerally with voters in the way that the Affordable Care Act has for Republicans.

But Republicans face their own challenges in broadening their appeal beyond the older, whiter more Southern demographic that powered a GOP wave election in 2010 and remains crucial to the party’s chances in November.

In addition to backing its own candidates, the Latino Victory Project will spend $20 million to target Republican candidates who face a sizable Latino electorate, yet oppose comprehensive immigration reform.

The group grew out of the Futuro Fund, which raised $30 million for Obama’s reelection and created a new cadre of high- and low-dollar donors, with 150,000 Latinos contributing.

Among the specific initiatives is a program called “The Firsts,” which will focus on Latinos who are the first in their families and communities to reach educational and professional milestones, a designation that often falls to the eldest daughter, who Alex said is often the “CEO in the family.”

“By 2016, we want 100,000 of the firsts,” Alex said. “And they will elevate the first Lucy Flores, the first Leticia Van De Putte.”

Indeed, sparking the kind of movement Longoria envisions means engaging Latinas.

“Women definitely make the household decisions, economic decisions, educational decisions, and in turn, that correlates with the political decisions,” she said.

For Flores, running in Nevada and generating buzz in the Beltway as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D) eyes the playing field for 2016, the support of a high-profile group with Longoria’s imprimatur is likely to expand her reach.

“One of the tough things about being a woman and a woman of color is that the infrastructure isn’t always there, and especially someone like me, who doesn’t come from a political family,” sid Flores, who campaigned for Obama with Longoria in 2012. “Having the Latino Victory Project provides support and structure. I think that the way it’s going to be most beneficial is that it’s going to provide a platform in Nevada and nationally to get my name out there and really help the momentum and the fundraising that the campaign needs.”

Longoria has nearly 7 million Twitter followers and has used her Twitter feed to promote “Devious Maids,” a show on Lifetime that she produces, and also to promote politics. She recently retweeted Van De Putte, whom she has supported in Texas in the past.

But she’s aware that Hollywood doesn’t always play in Texas, where Van de Putte, a longshot, lags in fundraising and in the polls.

“I am very, very careful about not falling into the ‘What does that Hollywood actress think?’ trap,” she said. “But I remember somebody coming up to me during the president election and saying that they didn’t know who Newt Gingrich was until I said his name on Twitter. So the reach that I have is very different from the candidate.”

Texas, with its 38 electoral votes, remains the biggest political prize for Democrats, yet the Lone Star state has remained solidly red.  The state’s brightest stars are Latinos, among them Sen. Ted Cruz; George P. Bush, who is running for Texas land commissioner; and twin brothers Joaquin Castro, a congressman, and Julian, who is mayor of San Antonio.

In Texas, Democrats don’t have a solid lock on Latinos; 40 percent backed Gov. Rick Perry in 2010.

Van de Putte, said in the long term, the PAC’s efforts will help lay the groundwork for a more sustained effort among Latino voters that could also boost her chances in November.

“This helps me make contact with Latinos who don’t know that Leticia Van de Putte is actually Leticia San Miguel Van de Putte,” she said.  “I’m going to need that core support from Latinos and to up that participation rate.”

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