The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Virginia GOP is eroding Democrats’ hold on Latino voters

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, center, talks with his chief of staff D.J. Jordan, right, and special counsel Stephanie Hamlett on Jan. 19 in his office in Richmond. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

The Republican Party is gaining fast on its ability to relate to the fastest-growing bloc of American voters, particularly in the South: Latinos.

For decades, Democrats have enjoyed a large advantage with immigrant populations from Spanish-speaking countries or cultures. Many Latino voters have perceived the Democratic Party as being more welcoming than the Republican Party.

On that trajectory, it would appear to create massive problems for the GOP in its Deep South stronghold where Latino population growth has surged the most as the White population stagnates. The Hispanic or Latino population is by far the fastest-growing of any group in the United States, particularly over the past 20 years. In Virginia alone, the numbers increased by nearly 44 percent from 2010 to 2020 compared with an overall population growth rate of 8 percent. Latinos now account for slightly more than one in every 10 Virginia residents, according to the 2020 Census.

But dire projections for the GOP are fraught because they presume a static political environment.

Though Latino support for the Democratic Party today is stronger than for the GOP, there are cracks in the foundation, with Republicans having reached out successfully to various Latino groups. It was manifest in some U.S. House races in 2020, and Republicans are using the formula again in this year’s congressional midterms.

Latinos are not politically monolithic because of differences in cultures, beliefs, nations of origin and practices among Latino peoples.

For instance, though Catholicism still dominates among American Latinos, it is on the decline. Evangelical Protestantism is the fastest-growing faith community among Latinos, especially in the South. A Pew Research Center study shows that Latinos overall are more religious and socially conservative than Whites, predisposing them more toward the GOP than the Democrats on social issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights and school prayer. Republicans are ahead of Democrats in recognizing and exploiting those distinctions, particularly in the South.

In 2020, former president Donald Trump’s campaign in Florida invested heavily in targeting an array of distinct Latino nationalities, not just the state’s dominant Cuban American community. Trump’s campaign developed specialized messaging for nationalities from Colombia, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela. It also launched Evangelicals for Trump out of a Florida megachurch largely composed of Latinos. Trump invested heavily in Spanish language advertising, claiming that Democrat Joe Biden would pander to communist regimes such as those Latinos fled for the United States and advance socialist domestic policies.

It paid off. Though Biden won the overall Latino vote over Trump in Florida, it was only by 7 percentage points, a margin too narrow for him to claim the state’s 29 electoral college votes. Trump won an impressive 55 percent of Florida’s Cuban American vote, 30 percent of Puerto Ricans and 48 percent of a group labeled only as “other Latinos” by exit polls.

In Virginia, fast-growing Latino populations have flexed their muscle in local and statewide elections in the past 20 years.

The cities of Manassas Park and Manassas have the two highest percentages of Hispanic and Latino populations in the commonwealth, both exceeding 40 percent of the localities’ total populations. Surrounding Prince William County is third at 25 percent. In 2000, before its Latino population exploded, the county’s state legislative delegation was overwhelmingly Republican. Today, of the dozen Senate and House of Delegates districts wholly or partly composed of those localities, Democrats represent 11.

On a broader scale, the Latino political influence can be seen in the two most recent gubernatorial elections. In 2017, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie inexplicably adopted campaign tactics Trump had modeled, stoking anti-immigrant fears. That became especially malignant after the deadly White supremacist Unite the Right rally in downtown Charlottesville as the race reached its home stretch in August of that year.

The resulting backlash fueled a Democratic landslide, with Democrats winning offices for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and gaining an unprecedented 15 House of Delegates seats, including two Latinas. Immigrant advocacy and Latino groups leaned heavily into political mobilizing that year, their work gaining resonance from overheated GOP advertising that used tropes about Latino immigrants driving suburban crime. The Latino vote went 2-1 for Democrats in Virginia that year.

By last year, Republicans had learned from their 2017 debacle. Under Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin, the GOP fielded the most diverse statewide ticket in Virginia history. It included the first Latino statewide nominee in Jason Miyares for attorney general and the first Black woman on a statewide ticket in lieutenant governor candidate Winsome Earle-Sears. All three won.

The GOP ticket also replicated Trump’s successful Florida approach from the previous year with targeted outreach to Latino communities and avoided the immigrant-bashing rhetoric and policy proposals that doomed the party four years earlier.

How well it worked is unclear. One exit poll showed Youngkin winning the overall Latino vote and another showed the Democratic nominee, former governor Terry McAuliffe, dominating that bloc. But this much is clear: In 2021, the GOP addressed drubbings in every Virginia election at every level since Trump first appeared on the ballot in 2016 by adopting more inclusive messaging toward minority groups, particularly Latinos. Not only did it help the party among those groups, it also helped win over moderate, suburban White voters who had been put off by the GOP’s xenophobia.

Where the loyalties of the fastest-growing segment of any population group in America go and how long they stay there are impossible to predict. But candidates and parties that do not ardently engage Latino communities do so at their considerable peril.