Against the Grain

Democrats Underperforming With Hispanic Voters

Despite the president’s hard-line immigration policies, Republican candidates are running competitively in many Hispanic-heavy states and congressional districts.

Rep. Will Hurd of Texas
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
July 4, 2018, 6 p.m.

Democrats counting on President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies to spark energized Hispanic turnout and a wave against GOP candidates in this year’s midterms will be surprised to see what’s transpiring. Even during the heat of the family-separation crisis, Democrats are underperforming in heavily Hispanic constituencies, from GOP-held border battlegrounds in Texas to diversifying districts in Southern California to the nation’s most populous Senate battleground in Florida.

If immigration affects the battle for Congress, it will be because of the anti-Trump backlash among suburban women as much as any increased mobilization in the Hispanic communities. The early returns are a sobering reminder for Democrats that, even as the Republican Party is becoming a more nativist institution, GOP candidates are still holding their own in diverse battlegrounds by distinguishing themselves from Trump.

Rep. Will Hurd of Texas once looked like one of the most vulnerable House Republicans, representing a border district where Hispanics make up 70 percent of the population—a seat Hillary Clinton carried by 4 points in 2016. Hurd has long been an independent GOP voice, emerging as a critic of Trump’s border-wall proposals and a supporter of a path to citizenship for Dreamers. But, as Democrats frequently bring up, he’s also a congressman whose partisan affiliation will help keep Republicans in charge of the House.

He’s in surprisingly good shape as he vies for a third term against Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones. Despite holding one of the 25 GOP seats that Clinton carried, he’s not on the list of The Cook Political Report’s most endangered 31 members. His Texas colleagues John Culberson and Pete Sessions, representing suburban Houston and Dallas districts where Republicans traditionally dominate, are in deeper trouble. It’s a crystal-clear sign that the anti-Trump anger is concentrated within whiter, affluent suburban communities, not the Hispanic battlegrounds with the most at stake.

There are also plenty of other clues suggesting Hispanic voters won’t be rushing to the polls this November. In a special election to fill the vacant seat of former Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas last Saturday, there were few signs of a Democratic wave. The reliably Republican district is majority-Hispanic, yet GOP candidates on the ballot tallied the same 60 percent vote share that Trump did in 2016. There were no signs of increased Hispanic engagement—even with the border crisis raging not far away.

Those results mirror the results from the March Texas primaries, in which the Democrats’ Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke, a progressive favorite, badly underperformed in many border towns with large Hispanic populations. O’Rourke carried 87 percent of the vote in millennial-friendly Travis County (Austin), but fell well short of a majority in most counties along the border.

Move to the West Coast, and the results look similar. One of the Democrats’ must-win targets in California, the seat of retiring Rep. Ed Royce, is looking surprisingly competitive. Even though this is a plurality-Hispanic district that Clinton comfortably carried, a recent poll commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee found Republican Young Kim leading Democrat Gil Cisneros by 2 points (45-43 percent). It’s another sign that Hispanics may not be turning out to vote at a level commensurate to their representation.

Florida is offering an even bigger shock to the Democrats’ system, given its perennial battleground status. In the state’s marquee race pitting Gov. Rick Scott against Sen. Bill Nelson, the governor’s standing with Hispanic voters is keeping him competitive despite the difficult political environment for Republicans. Two recently released polls show Scott, a longtime Trump ally, tallying noticeably higher popularity scores than the president in Florida. One poll, conducted by CBS News, shows Nelson leading by only 1 point among Hispanics (37-36 percent) while an NBC/Marist survey showed Nelson with a 10-point lead (52-42 percent) among the demographic. Either outcome shows Scott significantly outperforming Trump, who lost the Hispanic vote in Florida by a whopping 27 points in 2016 (and still carried the state).

Digging deeper, a Florida International University survey of Puerto Ricans in Florida—typically a Democratic-leaning demographic—found that 55 percent held a positive view of Scott, with 57 percent holding a positive view of Nelson. Democrats had been optimistic that a wave of these new voters in the wake of Hurricane Maria would give them an advantage for the midterms. But Scott’s frequent travel to the island and his campaign’s aggressive Spanish-language television advertising has kept them in play.

Down in South Florida, one of the few Republicans to represent a majority-Hispanic district is also showing his resilience. In a recent Democratic survey conducted in his district, Rep. Carlos Curbelo sported a solid 42-27 favorability score, with 48 percent of voters approving of Trump’s job performance. Clinton won this district by 16 points, so if anything, these results suggest Trump has gained ground with the district’s substantial Cuban-American community since becoming president.

Even in the New York City district where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engineered her stunning primary upset against Rep. Joseph Crowley, returns show that the biggest swing away from the congressman took place in the gentrifying precincts filled with young white voters. Ocasio-Cortez’s compelling biography clearly captured the imagination of the district’s Hispanic population, but it energized the progressive millennials even more.

If immigration is a winning issue for Democrats in the midterms, it’s because they’re winning over suburban white women, not because they’re mobilizing Hispanic voters against Republicans. Indeed, even as Democrats underperform in these pivotal races, the historic gender gap is what’s propelling them to a possible House majority.

These results also are an uncomfortable reminder to Republicans who championed the Republican National Committee’s infamous 2013 autopsy report claiming the party needed to moderate its position on immigration to win back Hispanic voters. Trump won the 2016 presidential campaign despite embracing hard-line immigration policies and deploying racially inflammatory rhetoric. Meanwhile, these results show that a critical mass of Hispanic voters are willing to prioritize other issues—like the growing economy—in choosing congressional candidates.

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