Leaving church on a recent Sunday, Jose Trujillo paused to consider the upcoming midterm election and two of the hottest Senate and gubernatorial races in the country, blazing away right here in Georgia.
Trujillo hasn’t paid much attention to either contest, but it’s not his flooring business that’s kept him too busy to care, or his infant daughter who’s taken away his interest. Rather, he cited President Obama and his failure to overhaul the nation’s vexing immigration laws.
“Obama promised too much and never delivered,” Trujillo, 44, said, gently rocking 1-year-old Dorothy in his arms outside Iglesia Des Dios Vivo church in Gainesville, a center of Georgia’s booming Latino population. Why bother voting, Trujillo asked, “when the politicians never listen to what the people say?”
As Democrats struggle to hold the Senate, limit their losses in the House and maybe gain a few governor seats Nov. 4, they are counting on strong support from Latino voters, a rapidly growing part of the electorate and a big reason states like California, Nevada and Colorado have gone from red to blue in their presidential preferences.
But Latino voting tends to drop in midterm elections and, as Trujillo’s sentiment suggests, that may prove all the more so next month, given deep frustration with the president.
He drew a record Latino turnout in 2012, but since then has repeatedly deferred action after pledging to push through comprehensive changes in immigration law, acting without Congress if necessary. For many, that failing seems to trump anything positive Obama has accomplished.
“All the air has been let out,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist who conducts extensive polling among Latinos nationwide.
His research suggests Latino voters, who typically vote heavily Democratic, could make the difference for the party in more than three dozen races across the country, including House contests in San Diego, Sacramento and Ventura County, gubernatorial races in Arizona, Florida and Illinois, and contests for governor and U.S. Senate in Colorado as well as Georgia.
That supposes, however, that Latinos cast their ballots in large numbers, something Clara Puerta regards with growing concern. The publisher of a Spanish-language newspaper, El Nuevo Georgia, Puerta, 36, volunteers for the state Democratic Party, working to build Latino support.
Asked her feelings about the president, a guilty look flashed across her face. “Obama has not responded to our community,” Puerta replied, a hand absently bobbing one of the red balloons decorating her booth at a Latino health fair in Lilburn, one of Atlanta’s far-reaching suburbs. “He promised us a lot of things and has not followed through. A lot of people are upset and they don’t want to vote.”
Nationally, opinion polls show Obama’s approval among Latinos slipping throughout his second term. Political and community leaders have also grown increasingly critical, especially since the president broke his promise to act on immigration reform by summer’s end. Advocates had hoped, among other changes, he would ease the record number of deportations.
Obama tasted a bit of that wrath when he spoke this month at the annual Washington gala of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Picketers marched outside, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey gave a pointed introduction — “We need reforms, we need them now” — and a heckler repeatedly interrupted the president, invoking his 2008 slogan in demanding, “Where’s the change we can believe in?”
The president again pledged action, saying he would “not give up this fight until it gets done,” and criticized congressional Republicans for blocking comprehensive immigration reform. “If we want that legislation to happen sooner rather than later, then there is one more thing I need you to do,” he told the ballroom filled with Latino lawmakers and activists. “I’ve got to have you talk to your constituents and your communities and you’ve got to get them out to vote.”
To that end, Democrats and their allies have poured millions of dollars into identifying, registering and motivating Latinos to turn out, using targeting data from Obama’s 2012 campaign. Advertisements in Spanish make a pocketbook case for the party and its candidates, calling for a higher minimum wage and equal pay for women and touting the benefits of the healthcare law.
Ads also blame Republicans for the failure to pass immigration reform, casting the GOP as not just obstructionist but anti-immigrant.
“Republicans made a political calculation that they could ignore you,” Pili Tobar, the Democrats’ director of Hispanic media, said in an interview, summing up the party’s message to Latino voters. “They ignored what you wanted to see happen with immigration reform; therefore, you need to get out and make your voices heard.”
Republicans are hardly ceding the Latino vote. The party has spent more than a year building its outreach effort, with a focus on 10 states, including California, Arizona, Colorado and Florida, where GOP strategists believe they can boost turnout of Latino supporters, especially social conservatives and small-business owners.
Part of the problem in recent years has been a failure to engage early, said Jennifer Sevilla Korn, deputy political director at Republican national headquarters and a veteran of President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, which drew strong Latino backing.
By showing up at community events — more than 1,400 in the last year, by her count — instead of just dropping by at election time, GOP candidates and their supporters “can say what the Republican message really is” and not let Democrats’ harsh portrayal go unchallenged. “We need to show the Hispanic community we absolutely care about immigrants,” said Korn, “and want to support immigration reform that works for both sides.”
But Latino support is far more vital to Democrats’ political success and so it is considerably more troublesome for the party when people like insurance salesman Eddie Velez walk away.
Latinos have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the new federal healthcare law and Velez, a Democrat, considers it a good thing Obama has done. But it was just one thing — and a small one at that — compared with the immigration issue, Velez said. “Everything that was promised didn’t happen,” said the round-cheeked 33-year-old, who may skip next month’s election, figuring it won’t make much difference who wins. “Nothing has changed.”
In many ways Georgia offers both a reflection of the past and a window into the future of Latinos’ growing political clout.
The Latino population has increased from less than 1% of Georgia’s 4.6 million residents in 1970 to more than 9% of the state’s nearly 10 million residents today.
The number of Latino voters has grown even faster, from about 10,000 registered in 2003 to about 220,000 currently, according to the Georgia Assn. of Latino Elected Officials, or GALEO, a nonpartisan group. Another 80,000 or so Latinos are believed eligible to vote but unregistered.
Eventually, Latinos, Asian Americans — also Democratic-leaning and rapidly growing in number — and the state’s historically large black population are expected to turn Georgia from solidly Republican into a swing state. “Republicans are just going to run out of white voters,” said Charles Bullock, a demographics and political expert at the University of Georgia.
For now, though, Georgia’s Latinos are politically marginalized, as they once were in California and elsewhere across the West; fewer than a handful have been elected to the 236-member Legislature in modern times and no Latino has ever won statewide office.
Jerry Gonzalez, head of GALEO, set out to sign up as many new Latino voters as possible this election season, believing they could make the difference in the tight Senate race between Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue as well as the toss-up governor’s contest between GOP incumbent Nathan Deal and Democrat Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Carter. Four years ago, Deal won by fewer than 260,000 votes.
“The equation is there. The power is there,” Gonzalez said, though he allowed Obama “and his continuing breaking of promises” had made his job harder.
With the first blush of autumn in the air, more than 150 GALEO staffers and volunteers hit the streets in heavily Latino neighborhoods in a final weekend push before the Oct.6 registration deadline. Originally the goal was 1,200 new Latino voters; Gonzalez said he was very happy to register about 700.