For the past few decades, Texas Latinos have been frequently referred to as the “sleeping giant” — a group so large that once awakened to vote, Latinos would deliver a seismic shift in political power. An influence so powerful that it would keep Democrats in office for generations. Texas Democrats, who have not won a presidential election since 1976 or held statewide office since 1994, are making familiar bets that 2020 is the year that the sleeping giant is roused from its slumber.
The elusive lore of the sleeping giant, however, is perilously false and imputes blame and inaction on Latinos themselves. Texas Latinos have never been asleep — they have been steadily voting in increasing numbers, and continue shaping the contours of Texas politics year after year. Rather, it is politicians and political parties who have historically failed to consistently have a presence in Latino communities, engage them culturally, and deliver a winning message to give Latinos a reason to turn out to the polls.
“Without Latinos, we won’t be able to flip Texas blue at all levels,” said Jonathan Flores, the Latinx constituency organizer for the Texas Democratic Party (TDP). “The Latino vote is needed.”
Flores is the sole staffer in the TDP dedicated to Latino outreach in Texas, a state of 29 million people that is almost 40 percent Latino and has the second largest share of eligible Latino voters in the country. His position this cycle, however, is the first of its kind for the party. After a strong performance by Beto O’Rourke in his 2018 U.S. Senate run that fell just 215,000 votes short of victory, national Democratic groups like the DNC have pumped money into the state to build on the foundation that O’Rourke laid down — including the funding and creation of Flores’ position. Texas is now viewed as the biggest battleground state in the nation.
Several top Latino elected leaders and the Texas Democratic Party pointed to Latino voters as the key to flipping the battleground state, detailed a revitalized effort to drive Latino turnout, and shared how they plan to mobilize Latinos en masse to win back the state. Their plan to win centers on investing in two major tenets — voter registration, and cultural outreach and organizing.
Investing in voter registration and fighting suppression
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Texas Democratic Party announced its plan to register 1 million new voters of an estimated 2.6 million unregistered Democrats, the largest effort in the party’s history and more than enough to cover Hillary Clinton’s 873,000 vote deficit to Donald Trump in Texas in the 2016 presidential election. While the TDP did not have specific metrics for how many Latinos they hope to register, engaging Latinos is a core part of their voter registration efforts, particularly in communities that are more than 75 percent Latino and have more than 100,000 Latinos in the county. One of the first steps in the TDP’s endeavor took place last week at the Texas Democratic Convention, in which more than 2,000 people signed up for a training to become voter registration volunteers, known as volunteer deputy registrars.
“This cycle is one where we are seeing a very professional and well-run Democratic party, which is something we’ve desired for a very long time,” said Rep. Rafael Anchía, a Texas state representative who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) and first took elected office in 2001 as a Dallas ISD Trustee. “For the first time since I’ve been in elected public service, there will be enough money to engage Latinos and pull them along with us, especially for low propensity voting Latinos.”
Anchía and MALC, a nonpartisan organization, are investing in efforts to fight voter suppression, educate Latinos on the voting process, and ensure its 41 Texas House members feel supported in engaging their majority-Latino constituencies.
“While Latinos are about 36 percent of the Texas population, we only cast about 22 percent of total votes. That’s an alarming data point,” said Anchía, the MALC Chair, about the Latino vote and MALC’s lawsuit against the state’s effort to block paid sick leave. “If we show up to vote and participate, it will be harder for others to erect policies that make it intentionally harder for our communities to show up.”
Another organization on the frontlines of this fight is the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the largest and oldest Latino organization in the U.S. LULAC is making deep investments in Texas, according to its national president, Domingo Garcia. Equipped with more than 100 local LULAC Councils spread across the state, LULAC is investing in voter registration, digital organizing, and pushing to expand vote-by-mail eligibility. In a lawsuit that LULAC filed against the state of Texas, they allege that the current vote-by-mail restrictions that limit age eligibility to those 65 and older disproportionately harms Texas Latinos because they tend to be younger and have a median age of 28 years old compared to 42 years old for white Texans. According to census estimates, nearly two out of every three adults 65 and older — the age to qualify for a vote-by-mail — in Texas are white. This effectively makes many Latinos, who may be suffering hardship and feel uncomfortable with voting in person because of COVID-19, unable to flex their political power.
“We’re concerned about the tortillas and frijoles issues that most of our families care about because COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting Latinos,” Garcia, the national president of LULAC and former Texas State House Representative in Dallas, said of the bread and butter issues that affect the Latino community. “[Many] Latinos are essential workers so they’ve been on the frontlines. They need health insurance to take care of them when they’re sick, they need disability insurance. Many Latino students don’t have Wi-Fi to be able to learn from home, and that’s created a serious inequity in our education system right now in Texas that needs to be bridged immediately.”
Investing in Latino outreach & organizing
“The Democratic party has made a lot of strides from when I first got involved [in 1991]. The chairman of the party is now a Latino, Gilberto Hinojosa,” said Garcia, of LULAC, about the TDP. “At the same time, we haven’t seen the investment in grassroots organizing that it will take to have a large turnout and finally turn Texas blue.”
If Latinos do deliver Texas for Democrats, it would be a fitting end for a president who once referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals; asylum seekers as an infestation; and undocumented immigrants as animals and thugs.
“The 2016 election demonstrated that when Latinos don’t participate, we get Donald Trump in the White House. And that’s scary. Immediately, our community is put on defense,” said Rep. César Blanco, a Texas state representative and the Democratic nominee for a state senate race in El Paso. “We have to push back on his rhetoric.”
Blanco, who was just elected as one of Texas’ DNC Hispanic Committee members and formerly worked for the DNC as the western regional political director, intends to use his new Democratic leadership position to advocate for Latinos and help the party build capacity for a consistent and frequent engagement program. “We need to be talking to Latinos year round, and talking to Black voters year round,” he said. “Minority communities are often ignored throughout the year, but when it comes to elections, all of a sudden, [campaigns] are reaching out to us. Democrats need to change that. We’ve got to have a robust year round communication process with money in that program.”
Showing up in Latino communities consistently throughout the year, regardless of any elections, will be critical in effectively listening to the concerns of Latinos. In lieu of being unable to engage with voters physically because of COVID-19, the Texas Democratic Party is investing in relational friend-to-friend organizing — where volunteers leverage personal connections with friends and family to get out the vote — so that young Latinos can pass on important election information to their family members, and has made a significant push to organize digitally and virtually.
Flores, the TDP’s Latinx constituency organizer, said the party is working to build a close relationship with Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, and pointed to several volunteer organizing and engagement initiatives that he is helming under an umbrella effort called Nuestro Poder Azul (My Blue Power): Mi Voz, Mi Poder (My Voice, My Power), a digital storytelling platform, Manos Azules (Blue Hands), a leadership training program that teaches people how organize their communities and register people to vote, and Movimiento Martes (Movement Tuesdays), a regular Tuesday update from Flores. Additionally, the TDP is launching its first full-Spanish Facebook page soon, and regularly posts on social media — Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
Despite producing consistent content posted to social media, the reach of these efforts appear to remain low for the state’s 11.4 million Latino residents. The TDP’s official Latinx Facebook group has less than 75 members and its YouTube has just 10 subscribers with its top video having just over 70 views. Further, the TDP’s Spanish website reverts back to English for most important links like Volunteering, Registering to Vote, Running for Office, Training Resources, and basic TDP information.
Flores highlighted that the program is still in transition because of COVID-19, and acknowledged room for growth. “It’s going to take a lot more engagement, a lot more education, and a lot more efforts and initiatives that are accessible,” he said. “Making sure that materials are in Spanish, making sure that it’s culturally relevant, that we are truly engaging in immersing ourselves into the culture, into the communities, because our Latino communities have been in the dark for a while, and that includes in electoral politics.”
Content posted on the Texas Democratic Party’s main Facebook page, however, has driven much stronger engagement. Three recent Latino-focused events, including the Movimiento and Voting forum during the Texas Democratic Convention with Rep. Anchía and Maya Macias, the vice president of Latino Victory, a Latinas in Politics Townhall featuring senior Latina campaign staff and organizers, and a Spanish Townhall with Congresswoman Veronica Escobar have received significantly more traction. At the virtual state convention, where the party broke previous digital fundraising records with $1.5 million in grassroots donations, the Latino-focused forum generated 141,000 views, hundreds of shares, and nearly 1,000 comments. The TDP’s effective deployment of surrogates highlights their capacity to adapt to the moment.
“We’re making sure that people see the power that Latinos have,” said Flores. “Making sure that people know we exist, that we have the power, and ultimately that our collective power will be able to turn Texas blue.”
The giant, sleeping elephant in the room
In politics, voter turnout is historically driven by the candidate at the top of the party’s ticket. In 2016, with Hillary Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket, Latino turnout saw little movement from years earlier. In 2018, with a Democratic ticket led by Texas’ Beto O’Rourke, around 830,000 more Texas Latinos voted; however, similar to years prior, Latino voters had the lowest rates of voting and had the smallest increase in voting compared to other racial groups.
In 2020, it was Sen. Bernie Sanders, not Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who won the vast majority of Latino voters. In Texas, Sanders won every major predominantly Latino city, and nearly every majority-Latino county. For young Latino voters under the age of 29, Sanders commanded an overwhelming 56 point lead to Biden. For those under the age of 44, Sanders won by more than 40 points to Biden. Biden edged out Sanders with older voters by about 5 points; however, 60 percent of Latinos are under the age of 35.
Given the data, the Democratic party, which is often viewed as adversarial to Sanders and his supporters, has a lot of ground to cover in order to win over Latino voters who supported him.
Domingo Garcia of LULAC has been in touch with the Biden campaign about this issue. “They need to adopt many of Bernie’s positions. You’ve got to give people a reason to vote for you,” he said. “Voting against Trump is not sufficient. You’ve got to give them a message that inspires them to go vote like Bernie inspired Latinos to vote for him — by raising the minimum wage to $15, by having healthcare for all, by making sure that we reform our immigration system.”
Both Reps. Anchía and Blanco initially brought up Sanders without any prompting.
“Democrats are going to deliver on progressive policies. Whether that’s an expansion of Obamacare or [Medicare for All] or free college or highly subsidized college, or finally doing something big on immigration,” Anchía, who endorsed Biden and is a national delegate for him, said of how Democrats can win over Sanders’ younger Latino voters. He further applauded the high levels of engagement he’s seen from young Latinos across the state, pointing to demands for racial justice at protests as an example.
“[Bernie] did very well with Latino voters,” said Blanco, who served as a Texas co-chair for Michael Bloomberg and is now a national delegate for Biden. “His campaign engaged the community early. His campaign engaged the community often. His campaign invested resources to maintain that active engagement. He spoke to the community in a way that resonates with us.”
He suggested that Democrats not supportive of Bernie must recognize what Sanders accomplished, learn from it, and implement those lessons.
“At the same time, Bernie Sanders folks need to realize that we have a candidate [Biden], that Bernie did not win, that we have to keep our eye on the ball and not lose this election to someone who is ruining this country,” Blanco added. “We need to come together and focus on what’s most important — and that’s beating Donald Trump.”
Turning Texas blue in 2020, for the first time since 1976, may only be possible with unprecedented Latino voter turnout. Texas Democrats have a clear and articulated plan to pull it off. Their recognition of some steps necessary to court Sanders’ Latino voters, their level of financial investment, and their plans to engage the Latino community are unmatched compared to previous election cycles. That, in of itself, may be reason for Democrats across the state to be hopeful.
“We were never asleep, we were left in the dark for so long,” said Flores of the Texas Democratic Party. “No one has necessarily put any time and effort into Latino communities. This year has been a huge push for that.”
Photo: David McNew/Getty Images