Democrats are worried about Latino voters in the midterms, fearing that weak efforts to energize a core element of their base could imperil their bid to win control of Congress in next month’s elections.
Although President Trump and Republicans have embraced policies and rhetoric hostile toward Latino immigrants, including fresh plans under consideration to separate migrant families at the border, Democrats have struggled to generate enthusiasm for their candidates in some Hispanic communities.
Democratic strategists and officials have pointed fingers at fellow Democrats, blaming congressional campaigns and allied groups for failing to engage Latino voters strongly enough as they place a heavy emphasis on winning white, middle-class voters in suburban swing areas.
In some races, stronger-than-expected Republican appeals to Hispanic voters have complicated matters further for Democrats, leaving them scrambling to compete in diverse areas key to determining which party controls the Senate and House.
“We’re at a very unique time in our political space because of Donald Trump, and if we miss this opportunity now, we may never get this opportunity again,” said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist consulting with major Latino organizations. “And it keeps me awake at night.”
Democrats are trying to retake control of the Senate, which Republicans hold by a slim 51-to-49 advantage. Three of their best chances to flip seats are in states with fast-growing Hispanic populations: Texas, Nevada and Arizona. They are defending a swing seat in Florida, another state with a sizable Hispanic population.
In Texas, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is trying to fend off Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a liberal star who raised an eye-popping $38.1 million in the past three months, making him one of the most successful fundraisers in history.
O’Rourke, who is white, speaks Spanish and has often switched languages during town halls. He has used the traditionally Hispanic nickname Beto for decades, rather than his birth name, Robert.
But Texas has proved to be a challenging place for Democrats to mobilize Hispanic voters. “That is a very hard thing to change in one campaign cycle,” said Matt Barreto, a co-founder of the research and polling firm Latino Decisions.
Cruz has long been one of his party’s most vocal advocates of a strict immigration policy. Still, a Quinnipiac University poll showed him winning 37 percent of Hispanic voters, a slightly higher share than Trump won in the state in 2016, according to exit polls. Overall, Cruz led O’Rourke by nine points in the survey.
Cruz released a Spanish-language online advertisement Friday featuring his father talking about fleeing Cuba. Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping that GOP Gov. Greg Abbott’s standing with Hispanic voters will help. Abbott, whose wife is Hispanic, is a heavy favorite to win reelection. He captured 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2014, and his campaign is aiming to top that this year.
Beyond their share of the vote, Democrats are concerned about total Hispanic turnout in Texas, a conservative state where they will need their most loyal supporters to cast ballots in huge numbers to have a chance of an upset.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), who said he has had long-standing concerns about organizational efforts in the Rio Grande Valley, along the border with Mexico.
Democrats are more confident about turning out Hispanic voters in Nevada, where Harry M. Reid built an imposing political machine when he was Democratic Senate leader and aggressively courted Latino support.
Rep. Jacky Rosen, the Democratic Senate nominee in a close race against Republican Sen. Dean Heller, has run six Spanish-language TV ads, touching on family separations and health-care protections, among other things.
Democratic strategists said they have sensed that Hispanic Americans are fired up about the election and angry about the Trump administration’s policies on immigration and health care. But many are new to voting and need more outreach from the campaigns about who the candidates are and what they stand for.
In Arizona, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has given Democrats a real chance of winning their first Senate race in three decades, as she takes on Rep. Martha McSally in an open-seat contest. But there are worries in the state about the party’s outreach to Hispanic voters.
“It always has to be more robust,” said Democratic National Committeeman Luis Heredia. “As campaigns are building out their plans, they don’t spend enough time thinking about ways to communicate with Latino voters, who are more fragmented.” He added: “There’s not enough being done.”
Democrats are becoming more encouraged about holding Florida, where Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is trying to turn back a challenge from Gov. Rick Scott (R), who has invested more in Latino support than most Republicans have.
But Nelson has drawn some Democratic complaints. He should have started sooner, said Jose Parra, a former adviser to Reid, “instead of trying to play catch up right now because Scott decided to play on Nelson’s side of the field.”
Democratic strategists said Hispanic voters, who already side heavily with their party, tend to engage later in the campaign, and they expect to consolidate their support as Election Day draws near.
In House races, Democrats have been focused on turnout in suburban swing districts, where many voters are white and have voted before. Some in the party worry that Latinos are being overlooked in the broader strategy.
“They need to approach low-propensity Latino voters with the same level of enthusiasm with which they’re approaching white suburban women,” said Baretto.
Of the 35 congressional districts where 2014 census data indicated that Latinos made up at least a third of eligible voters, Republicans hold seven seats. And while all seven are Democratic targets in November, polling and independent forecasters indicate that Democrats may have a tough time picking up most of them.
They include a central Miami district where Democrat Donna Shalala, a former Health and Human Services secretary in the Clinton administration, is struggling to break away from Maria Elvira Salazar, a Cuban American and former television anchor. The open seat should be a slam dunk for Democrats; Hillary Clinton won the district in 2016 by nearly 20 percentage points. In South Texas, GOP Rep. Will Hurd is showing resilience against Democratic challenger Gina Ortiz-Jones, a former CIA operative.
The effort to turn out Democratic votes in Latino communities is being led by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which for the first time is helmed by a Latino chairman, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), and a Latino executive director, Dan Sena. The group has set aside $30 million to turn out base voters, who include Latinos alongside African Americans, Asians, women and millennials.
The DCCC has been honing its outreach since the 2016 elections, using a series of special elections to perfect its messages — delivered via broadcast media, mail, text message and social networks — that it hopes will persuade voters who are unaccustomed to showing up in midterms to vote.
A coming digital campaign is targeted at voters under 40, featuring messengers with local cachet — a pastor, for instance, or a sports coach — who can speak with more credibility to potential Latino voters.
Republicans have resolved not to cede Hispanic voters to Democrats. The leading House Republican super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has so far aired Spanish-language commercials in more districts than has its Democratic counterpart, the House Majority PAC.
Few campaigns have been able to harness the energy of O’Rourke’s bid in Texas, which has attracted large crowds and donations from across the country.
Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela, who represents a South Texas district where nearly 60 percent of the eligible electorate is Latino, said he has been impressed by O’Rourke’s efforts in his area. But he said he was uncertain whether his shoe-leather campaign would translate into a surge of Latino votes.
“Is he going to get overwhelming Hispanic support at the polls on Nov. 6? That is for certain,” Vela said. “The bigger question is, will the Trump presidency and the excitement of his campaign bring the increase in the Latino vote that we long waited for, and that’s a much more difficult question.”
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.