Can North Carolina’s Latinos Help Democrats Hold the Senate?

Latino voters aren’t a major force in this year’s most critical Senate races, but some Democrats think North Carolina’s small Hispanic population could play a critical role.

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 06: U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 6, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The DNC, which concludes today, nominated U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate.
National Journal
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
June 22, 2014, 9:50 a.m.

His­pan­ic voters may be a rising force in Amer­ic­an polit­ics, but they will be all but in­vis­ible in most key Sen­ate races this year.

For all the talk after 2012 of the grow­ing group’s polit­ic­al im­port­ance, Lati­nos are con­cen­trated in spe­cif­ic states, and they just hap­pen to be ones that don’t fig­ure in­to this year’s battle for the Sen­ate. Even so, in one im­port­ant, closely di­vided cam­paign, some Demo­crats see a big op­por­tun­ity with this re­l­at­ively tiny group.

Lati­nos have punched well be­low their weight in turnout, barely mak­ing up 2 per­cent of the elect­or­ate in North Car­o­lina dur­ing the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion des­pite ac­count­ing for nearly 9 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion. They dis­play an even big­ger drop-off rate for the midterms than the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. But in a race that’s ex­pec­ted to be ex­tremely close, Demo­crats see a slice of the elect­or­ate that, though small, could po­ten­tially give Sen. Kay Hagan just the push she needs to win a second term.

One out­side group is already run­ning Span­ish-lan­guage ra­dio ads in the state, where the His­pan­ic com­munity can brace for sig­ni­fic­antly more at­ten­tion in the com­ing months. State and na­tion­al Demo­crats think they can tie Re­pub­lic­an state House speak­er Thom Tillis to a policy agenda they view as un­friendly to His­pan­ics by tar­get­ing in­ex­pens­ive Span­ish-lan­guage me­dia in an oth­er­wise pricey cam­paign.

That groups fo­cused on Latino voter turnout have chosen to fo­cus on North Car­o­lina, a state where their vote share in 2012 was five times lower than the na­tion­al av­er­age, shows just how small a role the much-dis­cussed bloc will play in 2014. But it also high­lights how close the race for con­trol of the Sen­ate is, and how Demo­crats are tak­ing every step they can to en­cour­age friendly voters to cast bal­lots in the tra­di­tion­ally low-turnout midterm elec­tion year.

“It’s true that it’s a small per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion, but we’re talk­ing about a midterm in which any and every vote is go­ing to make a huge dif­fer­ence,” said Pili To­bar, the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s dir­ect­or of His­pan­ic me­dia. “I think there’s a mis­con­cep­tion that there are only cer­tain states where, be­cause the Latino pop­u­la­tion is large, they’re the states where they will mat­ter. In real­ity, we’re see­ing more and more states, par­tic­u­larly in the South, where there is a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion that will make an in­creas­ing dif­fer­ence in these races.”

People For the Amer­ic­an Way put up the state’s first Span­ish-lan­guage ad, a ra­dio hit on Tillis over edu­ca­tion and tax breaks for the wealthy, this past May. The group is gear­ing up to go on tele­vi­sion closer to the elec­tion, con­tinu­ing their mes­sage that Tillis threatens many of the policy is­sues most im­port­ant to His­pan­ic voters.

Tillis, who has re­cently been em­broiled in a race-based con­tro­versy for once re­fer­ring to white voters as North Car­o­lina’s “tra­di­tion­al” vot­ing bloc, gives PFAW a can­did­ate they think will drive His­pan­ic voters to the polls to vote against.

“North Car­o­lina is the first state we’ve gone in­to be­cause Thom Tillis’s ex­treme agenda is for­cing our hand to get in­volved early,” said PFAW polit­ic­al dir­ect­or Randy Borntrager. “We’re ex­tremely con­cerned about the Latino com­munity un­der­stand­ing what’s at stake, so we en­gaged quickly.”

Borntrager said Tillis’s re­cord on Medi­caid, edu­ca­tion, and tax breaks for the wealthy, com­bined with a his­tory of “foot-in-mouth” com­ments when it comes to minor­it­ies, was something PFAW would make sure all Lati­nos were aware of come Novem­ber.

“He’s so bad on so many is­sues that’s it is an in­cred­ible mo­tiv­a­tion to get out and vote,” Borntrager said.

As PFAW takes on edu­ca­tion ef­forts, the state’s Demo­crat­ic Party is also at work on the largest get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tion North Car­o­lina has ever seen in a Sen­ate race. North Car­o­lina Demo­crat­ic Party spokes­man Ben Ray said his group was also count­ing on Tillis as a mo­tiv­at­ing factor for Lati­nos to re­gister and vote.

Mean­while, com­mu­nic­at­ing with His­pan­ics of­fers Demo­crats a much less ex­pens­ive way to talk to po­ten­tial voters than is typ­ic­al in North Car­o­lina. PFAW spent a grand total of $1.4 mil­lion on elec­tion-re­lated activ­ity in 2011 and 2012; Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity has already spent many times that on North Car­o­lina TV in re­cent months alone. But Span­ish-lan­guage ads that tar­get their spe­cif­ic audi­ence al­low the anti-Tillis group to use its money more ef­fi­ciently than on Eng­lish-lan­guage me­dia.

“There’s a lot of very ef­fi­cient ways to use money to com­mu­nic­ate with the Latino com­munity,” Borntrager said. “There’s Span­ish-lan­guage ra­dio and tele­vi­sion that goes fur­ther, and many people over­look these chan­nels as a way to com­mu­nic­ate. This sec­tor and this way of com­mu­nic­at­ing is something we spe­cial­ize in.”

The hope for ma­jor re­turns from the ef­fort may be op­tim­ist­ic. North Car­o­lina Demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al con­sult­ant Thomas Mills said that while Demo­crats are right about the grow­ing in­flu­ence of His­pan­ic voters, out­reach ef­forts in the 2014 cycle aren’t likely to res­ult in enough votes to make a dif­fer­ence.

“Every bit counts, and in a re­mark­ably close elec­tion like North Car­o­lina is likely to be, it’s smart to get all of your base out,” Mills said. “But I have a hard time see­ing them be­ing a ma­jor force. They’ll def­in­itely play a big role two or three cycles from now, but prob­ably not in 2014.”

Borntrager dis­agreed. He points to his group’s work in Vir­gin­ia’s gubernat­ori­al elec­tion, where exit polls showed that His­pan­ics made up 4 per­cent of the elect­or­ate in 2013, as proof that His­pan­ics don’t need a crit­ic­al mass to tip the scale.

“The point here is that the Hagan-Tillis race is go­ing to be ex­tremely close, and what we’re do­ing is ex­tremely ef­fi­cient, the cost isn’t much,” Borntrager said. “So if it’s an ex­tremely close race, like it was in Vir­gin­ia in 2013, it’s a small but ex­tremely in­flu­en­tial group, es­pe­cially in a midterm.”

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