Young Democrats pose for a photo at the election night watch party for Beto O’Rourke in El Paso last week. (GABRIEL C. PÉREZ / KUT)
The Texas Senate race was very, very close – closer than any statewide election in recent history – and Latinos could be part of the reason why.
“Latinos are becoming a political force to be reckoned with in the state,” said Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, the executive director of Jolt, which works to get young Latinos, in particular, politically engaged.
Tzintzun said the 2018 elections showed the electorate in Texas is slowing changing – and that’s slowly changing the state’s politics.
“Our largest turnout came from Latinos from ages 18 to 25,” she said. “Even though we door-knocked on Latinos up to the age of 60, the largest turnout came from young Latino voters, and I think that is a big lesson.”
“You are starting to see a huge shift in Latino voters consistently going for Democrats in the last two elections.”
Tzintzun said it’s a big lesson for Democrats, in particular. For years, she said, the party has not done enough to reach out to Latino voters, because they have historically been less likely to vote. Compared to Latinos in other parts of the country, Texas Latinos are also known to vote for Republicans in larger numbers. But that’s been starting to change.
More Latinos have been voting since 2016, Tzintzun said, and they’re voting differently. According to CNN exit polls, about 64 percent of Latinos voted for Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke over Republican incumbent Ted Cruz.
“You are starting to see a huge shift in Latino voters consistently going for Democrats in the last two elections,” Tzintzun said.
Even though O’Rourke lost, there are signs that engaging Latino voters makes a difference in Texas, said Albert Morales with Latino Decisions, a polling firm in Washington, D.C.
He said O’Rourke losing by a mere 2.6 percent in a state as historically conservative as Texas is a sign that there’s a path forward for Democrats here.
“There is now merit in investing in Texas, and I would start with voter-registration efforts,” he said.
While roughly 4.5 million Latinos in Texas are eligible to vote, Morales said, he thinks only about 2 million are actually registered.
Registering people to vote is expensive and time-consuming which is part of the reason groups don’t typically target Latinos, who are not likely to vote. However, Morales said, it might be easier to convince Democratic groups to do that now.
“Now you have evidence,” he said. “You have evidence that it’s within reach.”
Morales said there is more than just one thing that’s tipping the scales toward Democrats in Texas: It also helped that O’Rourke was a strong candidate. Perhaps just as important, issues like immigration and the way Republicans have been talking about Latinos have changed things.
Morales said Latino Decisions had a tracking poll before the election that showed Latino voters were angry about Republican immigration rhetoric and policies on family separation at the border and DACA, among other things.
“We also saw a lot of self-mobilization,” Morales said. “So, for example, in our final tracking poll I think the night before the election, 77 percent of Latinos had indicated that they were encouraging family or friends to turn out and vote.”
This is all a larger trend that has Republicans in Texas concerned.
Artemio Muniz, chairman of the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans, said the hard line Republicans like Donald Trump and Cruz have drawn on immigration is making Texas more of a swing state.
“I believe that if the Republican Party of Texas does not address immigration, then we go blue,” he said.
Not only is the issue of immigration turning away Latinos, Muniz said, but it also doesn’t help his fellow Republicans that Democrats are starting to mobilize more seriously.
“The Republican Party of Texas has depended … on the Democratic Party not doing their job,” he said.
Muniz said Republicans are going to have to change their strategy and how they talk about immigration.
“The Democratic Party is having success – not just because they are organizing and because they have money – but because we have antagonized and disrespected the Hispanic community,” he said.
Tzintzun said she thinks outside Democratic groups are going to seize the opportunity.
“You are going to see sizable investments come to Texas like you haven’t seen before,” she said.
Tzintzun said she thinks most of that money should be spent on mobilizing young voters of color, in particular. Her group is part of a coalition that announced Monday that it plans to register 300,000 voters in Texas under the age of 30 by the 2020 election.
According to Jolt, 43 percent of Texans ages 18 to 30 are Latino.
Even though Democrats have gained a bigger edge with Latino voters, Tzintzun said, both parties need to think about these voters differently and seriously invest in them.
“While Latinos turned out in record numbers, they were still under invested in by both major parties,” she said.