If there’s a red wave in 2022, it will be powered by Latina candidates.
Part of The power and potential of Latino voters, from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Anna Paulina Luna is ready for people to get to know the “new GOP.”
Luna, 33, is an Air Force veteran, political activist, and likely future Congress member representing Florida’s 13th District, a seat that got safer for Republicans in the latest round of redistricting. She’s also a granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and one of a record 43 Republican Latina candidates who ran for House seats this year, 17 of whom have won their primaries so far.
“I think that the new GOP that exists is not your stereotype of what it used to be,” she tells Vox. “We’ve had to really push back against this narrative that Republicans are just older white males, which to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it’s false. I mean, we’re so diverse.”
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The “new GOP” Luna references doesn’t sound all that different in its policy goals from the one of years past. But if she and other members of her cohort win, the party will certainly look different. Currently, just 16 percent of House Republicans are women, while 9 percent are people of color. Should Luna and other Latina GOP candidates win this year, it would mark major progress for Republican efforts to broaden the party’s slate of lawmakers — and appeal to voters — an existential issue in a country that’s poised to be majority-minority by 2050.
Other Latina candidates vying for competitive seats include former Sen. Ted Cruz staffer Cassy Garcia in Texas’s 28th, former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer in Oregon’s Fifth, and Prince William County official Yesli Vega in Virginia’s Seventh.
There are two big factors driving the surge in Republican Latina candidates this year, says Olivia Perez-Cubas of Winning for Women, a group dedicated to electing Republican women.
“There has been a concerted effort on the right to focus on the Hispanic and Latino community, and to recruit more diverse candidates who are reflective of their district,” she tells Vox. “There’s also growing frustration in the Hispanic community that Democrats no longer reflect their values, and we’re seeing more candidates willing to run because of it.”
Both factors contributed to Luna’s candidacy. She was formally brought into GOP politics after being recruited to lead Hispanic engagement for Turning Point USA, a right-wing advocacy group. And she feels the Democratic Party hasn’t spoken to her views, particularly on border security or the economy.
Luna and other candidates also say that Democratic missteps — including poor outreach and first lady Jill Biden’s comments comparing the Latino community to “breakfast tacos” — have shown just how out of touch its leaders are with Latino voters.
“I think the pandering that they’ve done to how they’ve treated us, you know, we’re not stupid, and they don’t own our vote,” she says.
The GOP has been laying the foundation to become more diverse since 2012 — and it’s accelerated these efforts since last cycle.
After losing the presidential election in 2012 — when candidate Mitt Romney won just 30 percent of Latino voters — the Republican National Committee commissioned a postmortem report. It concluded the RNC needed to “make certain that we are actively engaging women and minorities in our efforts” when it came to candidate recruitment and that “we need to strengthen our farm team to ensure that we are competitive in up-ballot elections in the future when the electorate will be considerably more diverse.”
The idea was that electing a more representative pool of officials to state and local office could help Republicans reach a broader base of voters, and establish a deep bench for federal seats down the line.
That RNC report boosted efforts like the Republican State Leadership Committee’s “Future Majority Project,” which is dedicated to identifying and backing women and people of color for Republican seats at the state level. The project had some success including wins by 43 of 240 recruits in 2014, and some participants — like now-Rep. Young Kim (R-CA), going on to higher office.
Such progress looked likely to be squandered in 2016, when Donald Trump entered the Republican primary and trounced the competition on a message that seemed tailor-made to put off Hispanic voters: He infamously described some immigrants from Mexico as “rapists,” questioned a federal judge’s ability to fairly make decisions because he is Mexican American, and pledged harsh border enforcement and a wall along the US border with Mexico.
Despite Trump’s xenophobic and racist rhetoric, his campaign invested in connecting with more religious Latino voters, and ended up seeing numbers consistent with Romney’s.
All the while, Republicans at the state and federal levels continued to work on efforts like the ones recommended in the 2013 report. As chair of House Republican recruitment in 2018, Rep. Elise Stefanik focused on bringing on more women, Hispanic, and African American candidates, who she described as often more effective than white, male candidates in swing districts. And in 2021, the RSLC established the “Right Leaders Network,” which is dedicated to providing mentorship and training for women and candidates of color.
Ahead of 2020, Trump and the Republican National Committee made key investments in wooing Latino voters as well, including opening up field offices in predominantly Latino areas. This cycle, the RNC has set up more than 30 community centers including at least a dozen focused on Hispanic voters. These centers serve as key locations for campaign events and voter registration, as well as other social gatherings, according to RNC spokesperson Danielle Alvarez.
Such investments appeared to pay off in 2020; Trump’s share of Latino voters grew by 8 percentage points compared to 2016, according to data from Catalist, a Democratic firm. And several places saw rightward shifts: Zapata County in South Texas flipped from previously voting Democratic to voting for Trump, while multiple counties in that region and in South Florida shifted right, with Joe Biden winning by much smaller margins than former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did. Florida Reps. Maria Salazar and Carlos Gimenez, both of whom had support from Republican leadership, flipped Democrat-held districts.
Of the 14 Democratic-held House seats that Republicans flipped last cycle, 13 of those were won by a candidate that was either a woman or person of color, the Christian Science Monitor reported. Additionally, Republicans more than doubled the number of women in their House caucus, from 13 to 29.
That meant Republicans narrowed Democrats’ control of the House to a super-slim margin, a feat they chalked up to the strength of candidates in swing districts. Essentially, one big lesson Republicans took from 2020 was that diverse candidates can provide electoral advantages.
“We learned that we could overperform in new kinds of districts by recruiting compelling candidates with interesting stories and different profiles that reflect the districts they are trying to represent,” says Calvin Moore, a spokesperson for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee endorsed by House Republican leadership.
In practice, that has led the GOP, and notable outside groups, to put more resources behind a wide range of candidates.
“For minority candidates who are not in the political industry whatsoever, it can be really intimidating to jump in and run for office if you have the passion, but you don’t have the infrastructure to do that,” says Lorna Romero, an Arizona-based Republican strategist who previously served as a communications director for John McCain’s 2016 Senate campaign.
Such efforts have significant support from the most powerful Republicans.
“I think that Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, the Republican leadership, has been the most receptive leadership group on these issues, of making sure … we’re recruiting good candidates in every part of the country,” says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), a founder of the Hispanic Leadership Trust, a political action committee started in May that’s dedicated to supporting Hispanic and Latino candidates. For example, McCarthy has personally backed Juan Ciscomani, a former adviser for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, while party leaders advocated for Chavez-DeRemer to run in Oregon.
Other candidates — like Luna, Vega, and Garcia — have been elevated as part of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program, which highlights strong campaigns to donors and provides national exposure.
“They’re very much encouraging all candidates from different walks of life to step up to the plate,” Luna told Vox.
The mentoring and attention provided by initiatives like the Young Guns program and Right Leaders Network have helped candidates build out their infrastructure, but so has money from a slew of political action committees.
In addition to the Hispanic Leadership Trust, there’s been an explosion of PACs dedicated to funding Republican women candidates as well as minority candidates. Both Stefanik’s Elevate PAC and Winning for Women were started to bolster the number of women in the GOP conference. Catalyst PAC was also founded by Republican strategists Larissa Martinez and Rina Shah in 2019 to promote candidates who are underrepresented in the Republican Party including people of color and LGBTQ candidates.
Together, these PACs — as well as the Congressional Leadership Fund — have spent heavily to boost Latina candidates. For instance, CLF spent $164,000 on ads to support Monica De La Cruz in Texas’s 15th District and $200,000 to support Mayra Flores in Texas’s 34th District during their primaries.
This influx of money and infrastructure make the process of running for office more feasible for candidates who were previously reluctant to take it on.
Those candidates — including at least 17 Latina candidates who’ve won House primaries this year — span the GOP’s ideological spectrum. Some, like Flores, are more conservative and have backed hardline immigration policies much like Trump’s. Others, including lawyer and former radio host Yuripzy Morgan, in Maryland’s safely Democratic Third District, are closer to the center and more focused on pocketbook issues.
“I know it is a bit of a dirty word in politics. But you know what, the majority of Americans are moderate, I am moderate. And I’m not afraid to say it,” Morgan tells Vox.
Multiple Republicans emphasized the importance of backing candidates with “authenticity” and connections to their communities. Among those running in Texas, for example, Monica De La Cruz is a small business owner, Flores is a respiratory care therapist who worked with Covid-19 patients, and Garcia is a former congressional staffer. Some, including Luna and Vega, also have experience in the military or law enforcement; Flores and Irene Armandariz-Jackson, a real estate agent and anti-abortion activist running in Texas’s 16th District, are married to partners who’ve worked as border patrol agents.
Several candidates are running in swing districts, where Republicans hope they will be more appealing to independent and moderate voters. In 2022, at least 10 of the most competitive battleground House districts — the ones that have been listed as toss-ups by Cook Political Report as of early September — have Republican challengers that are either women or people of color. The GOP has a good chance of retaking the House this fall, and it’s counting on candidates like De La Cruz, Garcia, and Chavez-DeRemer to make that happen.
Republicans are likely looking beyond 2022 with their recruitment efforts as well.
The party’s ability to connect with different minority groups is becoming more critical as the country becomes increasingly more diverse: In 2000, Hispanic voters made up 7 percent of the US electorate. In 2018, they comprised 13 percent. According to a US Census projection, the US population will be majority-minority by 2045.
“The math just doesn’t add up for Republicans in places like Texas if they can’t bring people of color to their side. This is a last ditch effort to hold onto power without actually changing their policies,” argues Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the executive director of progressive advocacy group NextGen America and founder of Jolt, an organization dedicated to mobilizing Latino voters in Texas.
Republicans see a major opening with Latino voters both because of the support they’ve already received, and their belief that Democrats are neither doing sufficient outreach nor speaking to the top concerns that voters have.
“We often hear … minority voters feel like Democrats are taking their vote for granted,” the RNC’s Alvarez tells Vox. Strategists within the Democratic Party, too, have repeatedly warned the party that they needed to get involved in voter outreach earlier in the campaign cycle, rather than doing so just ahead of Election Day.
While Democrats are preparing to run campaigns centered on abortion access, their climate achievements, canceling student loan debt, and their success in lowering the cost of certain prescription drugs, Republicans argue voters — including Latino voters — are more worried about energy costs, education, and public safety. Many GOP candidates say that voters in their district are most concerned about the same issue: the economy.
“This inflation affects everyone,” says Armendariz-Jackson, who is running in Texas’s 16th. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, brown, or white. We’re all hurting.”
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Republicans believe focusing on the economy will pay particular dividends with Latino voters because it’s also a way to talk about shared values, says Geraldo Cadava, a Northwestern University political scientist and author of the book The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of An American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump.
“I think Latino conservatives are doubling down on free enterprise, they are still preaching a prosperity gospel, that wealth creation is the specialty of the Republican Party,” he tells Vox.
Broadly, Republicans feel Democrats still treat the group as a monolith, and have been using Jill Biden’s “breakfast taco” gaffe to sell Latino voters on that idea. Garcia’s campaign, for example, is selling a line of merch that reads “unique as a taco.”
“I think Democrats have … put us in a box where if we’re Latino we’re supposed to be Democrats, we’re supposed to want illegal immigration,” says Armendariz-Jackson. “And that couldn’t be further from the truth, especially those who have immigrated to the United States legally.”
Latina candidates Vox spoke with were clear about why they felt the Republican Party was a good fit for them. But the rise of Latina Republican candidates has prompted debate about what such representation means when Republicans have promoted xenophobic rhetoric and harmful policies directed at Latino people.
Some Republicans argue that Trump’s racist remarks aren’t offensive to Latino voters, and that they’ve been taken out of context. “You have many Latino conservatives flatly denying that Trump was saying anything racist against their community as a whole because they say that he was talking about a very specific group of immigrants who had broken the law by entering the country without papers,” says Cadava.
Strategists and candidates note, too, that the GOP is bigger than Trump’s particular views. It’s a dynamic that reflects an ongoing tension in the party, which has tried to make its tent a little bigger, while being dominated by Trump and other leaders who espouse racist and xenophobic viewpoints.
Despite Trump’s past rhetoric, the party is successfully diversifying. And that has led to the rise of candidates who are able to deliver Trump’s talking points in bold new ways. Because Latino candidates share certain aspects of their identity with the voters they’re speaking to, they can sometimes be more effective messengers for Republican ideas than white men.
“If you put Donald Trump and Mayra Flores side by side, they are largely saying the same thing,” said Cadava. “But for Latinos, hearing that same message from Mayra Flores would be more compelling to them than from Trump.”
Critics of the GOP’s effort to expand its Latino base argue its central problem is that the Republican platform does little to center the needs of Latino voters.
“Republicans have done a great job showing off their Latina candidates, but they’ve done a terrible job addressing the actual concerns of the Latino community,” says Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, a group dedicated to turning out Latino voters, in a statement. Republicans have opposed policies like the Affordable Care Act and a $15 minimum wage, both of which would disproportionately benefit Latinos.
But Republicans — including the party’s Latina candidates — say such points of view are shortsighted and narrow-minded. Most of all, they say, arguments like Kumar’s miss the genuine connection that Republican messaging has for a segment for voters.
“That’s kind of offensive that just because you’re of a certain descent, you need to vote a certain way. And if you don’t vote that way, you’re not representing your community,” says Romero, the Republican strategist. “That’s one of the things that upsets me most.”
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