The Hill Interview: DNC chair calls Latinos 'imperative' to winning in battleground states

The Hill Interview: DNC chair calls Latinos 'imperative' to winning in battleground states
© Rafael Bernal

Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE sees the Latino vote as key to winning the 2020 presidential election — and not just in states with large Hispanic populations.

Perez said in an exclusive interview with The Hill on Tuesday that investing in Latino voters is “an electoral imperative and frankly, for me as the first Latino DNC chair, it’s a moral imperative.”

Over the next 12 months, Perez is looking to tap into one of the fastest growing voting blocs to deliver a White House victory for Democrats against President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE.

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From 2014 to 2018, the active Latino electorate nearly doubled to 11.7 million. Those numbers aren’t lost on Perez, who said Latinos are poised to cast the deciding votes in battleground states that go far beyond traditional Hispanic population centers.

“You look at places like Wisconsin, I mean, you don’t think of that when you initially think of where’s the Latino vote,” Perez said. “I look at those key industrial Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — three states that we won in 2018 and we lost in 2016.”

“If we replicate our success in 2020, then it’s game-set-match. Because if Trump loses those three states, he doesn’t have a pathway” to a second term, Perez added.

The party’s approach to registering and winning over Latino voters has been a combination of learning from the failures of 2016 and building on the successes of 2018.

Latinos played a pivotal role in handing Democrats congressional victories last year in California, New Mexico and Texas, a stark contrast from two years earlier when millions of Hispanic votes were left on the table, with Republicans and Democrats alike saying the demographic was too expensive to pursue at the state and national level.

“My observation is: Politics became too transactional on the Democratic side. You know, we’d show up, we’d do a three-month sprint before an election. Today’s DNC is about building 12-month-a-year relationships,” said Perez.

Activists have long clamored for year-round efforts to register, educate and engage Hispanic voters for whom participation is more challenging than the average voter.

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Latinos have historically faced a series of obstacles to voter participation, including substandard public education, language barriers and voter suppression in states like Texas.

That amounted to costly outreach efforts for national parties. The lack of investment in turn contributed to voter apathy.

In the 2014 midterms, only 27 percent of eligible Latino voters cast a ballot, according to the Pew Research Center. The overall participation rate was 36.4 percent.

Four years later, in part because of heavy spending by Democrats and partly in reaction to Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, 40.4 percent of Latinos voted, when the nationwide participation rate was 47 percent.

Perez said there is still much room for improvement in terms of voter registration, particularly in battleground states.

“There are roughly 80,000 eligible unregistered likely Democratic Latino voters in Michigan, and we lost Michigan by less than 11,000 votes” in 2016, he said. “In Wisconsin, there are roughly 70,000 unregistered eligible likely Democratic Latino voters. And we lost Wisconsin by 21,000 votes. You look to Pennsylvania and it’s a similar story.”

Perez said that Arizona is “poised to turn blue” with 300,000 unregistered likely Latino voters. In 2016, Democrats fell short there by 90,000 votes in the presidential election.

To rectify that, the party has launched a program called Organizing Corps that trains local organizers in battleground states.

Still, the bulk of Hispanic voters live in either deep-blue states like California and New York, or states that have become stumbling blocks for Democrats like Florida and Texas.

“What I would describe in both states is, we’ve made tremendous progress but we still have more work to do,” said Perez, referring to Florida and Texas.

Perez said some of the credit for that progress goes to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who in 2018 fell short in his bid to unseat Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump has officially appointed one in four circuit court judges On The Money: Retirement savings bill blocked in Senate after fight over amendments | Stopgap bill may set up December spending fight | Hardwood industry pleads for relief from Trump trade war Retirement bill blocked in Senate amid fight over amendments MORE (R-Texas) by about 215,000 votes.

“In Texas, 800,000 more Latinos voted in 2018 than in 2014 — that’s tremendous and Beto O’Rourke inspired many voters to get out there, and I take my hat off to him,” said Perez.

“At the same time, 3.5 million Latinos in Texas were eligible to vote in 2018 and did not,” he said, adding that by the time of the 2020 election, that number will be closer to 4 million.

Texas Hispanics have long complained that the state makes it harder for people to vote, with stricter ID laws, fewer polling places and tougher voter registration processes.

Perez said that’s part of the problem, but one that can be countered with long-term community engagement.

“Part of that is the Republicans have made it really hard for them to vote. But part of it is, we’ve got to get out there and organize in every community across the state, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

In Florida, a state where Republicans have proven to be effective campaigners in the Latino community, the various Hispanic populations have presented challenges for Democrats.

“Florida is different in that the demographic profile of the community is a — I would describe it more as the Latino communities,” said Perez.

To have success in communities in Florida, such as Venezuelan Americans or Cuban Americans, Perez said the party needs its message to appeal to people who have fled oppressive regimes in Latin America.

Nationwide, Perez is comfortable playing offense when it comes to courting Latino voters.

Perez said pro-Trump candidates such as former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, both of whom are mulling Senate runs, would help keep Hispanic voters energized.

“I kind of hope he does get on the ballot because he is such a polarizing figure,” Perez said of Arpaio.

As for Trump’s argument that Latino voters will help him win New Mexico in 2020, Perez scoffed.

“I mean, President Trump is delusional,” Perez said. “If he thinks he’s on the offensive in New Mexico, what he has been is offensive to Latinos living in New Mexico.”