Texas Democrats see an opening during this year’s midterm election. They are hoping to pick up seats in Congress that they haven’t won in a long time, as well as a slew of seats down the ballot. To do that, though, the party will have to get Latinos in Texas – who don’t often go to the polls – to vote in higher numbers.
Joseph Kopser, a Democrat running for an open seat vacated by longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, recently held what he called an “immigration roundtable” in San Antonio.
“I want to learn from you all and I hope we learn from each other,” he told a small group of immigration activists.
The event was an effort to start reaching out to Latino voters in the district, which is a historically red district and includes parts of Austin, San Antonio and the Hill Country. Kopser’s opponent, Republican Chip Roy, is largely expected to win.
During the event, Kopser talked to folks who work with immigrant communities and asked them what they want to see change in the country’s immigration laws.
One of the people who attended this small meeting was Viridiana Carrizales. She grew up in Texas without documentation, but in recent years gained a legal status after getting married.
She said Congress should be looking at ways to give permanent statuses to undocumented immigrants. She said temporary programs like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) are not enough.
“It is inhuman for us to plan our lives in two-year increments,” Carrizales told Kopser. “I cannot ask any of my friends who have DACA status, ‘What do you hope to be in five years?’ Because they cannot think past the expiration date of their DACA.”
Despite the odds, Kopser’s bid for Congress is among several races national Democratic groups are watching. Their hope is higher Latino turnout will help candidates like Kopser this year.
“Latinos are everywhere in Texas,” said Manny Garcia, the Deputy Executive Director of the Texas Democratic Party. “So, the ultimate goal is to bring up turnout everywhere in the state. It’s the only way you win.’
Garcia said this year’s midterms are “an all hands on deck” situation for the party. He said among Democrats there’s a large effort underway to get Latinos mobilized, which is has been an ongoing issue for the party.
People of color make up a majority of the state’s population, but that hasn’t yet translated into Democratic political power in Texas. Garcia said engaging those voters hasn’t been taken seriously enough.
“For a couple of decades now there has been a ‘demographics is destiny’ narrative that has existed,” he said. “And sadly for many of those years, it seems like … communities of color were taken for granted – that basically they were expected to show up whether or not we are producing results.”
Texas has had a growing population of young people and people of color – groups who are more likely to vote for democrats, but Republicans continue to win big in Texas.
In 2016, Republicans won all the statewide offices and President Donald Trump won the state by nine percentage points.
Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez is the executive director of Jolt, a group that’s trying to get young Latinos to vote in Texas, and she says it’s not a given that demographic shifts in Texas will help Democrats.
“Demographics alone are not destiny,” she said. “If they were, Texas would already be a very different place.”
Ramirez said Democrats need to do a better job of reaching Latino voters on the issues that are important to them. She said that’s immigration, education, health care and livable wages.
Furthermore, Democratic candidates and progressive groups around the country need to spend more money registering and engaging Latino nonvoters.
Ramirez said the lack of financial investment in Latino outreach in Texas is one of the biggest reasons the state is still red.
“Too many times Texas serves as an ATM,” she said. “Progressive dollars and dollars invested in the Latino community are sent to places like Florida and they are not invested here in Texas because people don’t see it as a competitive state.
But if national groups actually spent money on Texas, she said, Texas would be a competitive state. And groups would be starting basically from scratch because there’s so little existing infrastructure for getting out the Latino vote. Data from heavily Latino areas, such as the Rio Grande valley, show voter registration numbers are not up a significant amount right now.
“I think there has been a lack of acceptance that who this state is is black and brown people and that they are primarily young,” she Ramirez said, citing projections that one in three voters will be under the age of 30 by 2022.
“That is going to be, and is right now, the largest, the most diverse and the most progressive voting bloc,” Ramirez said. “But the answer that candidates give is, ‘well they don’t vote.’ So they don’t spend money and it’s a cyclical problem. So, the candidates and the party that isn’t willing to spend money on young voters color – are part of the problem.”