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Hispanic Democrats build capital with big primary wins

Hispanic Democrats build capital with big primary wins
© THE HILL/GETTY IMAGES ILLUSTRATION

The campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) Bold PAC,  is building political capital by placing winning bets on long-shot primary candidates, many of whom have been ignored by the Democratic establishment.

The latest example is Ritchie Torres, a New York City Council member who has built a substantial lead in the Democratic congressional primary on June 23 to replace retiring Democratic Rep. José Serrano (D) in the safe blue district. The race had yet to be called as of Wednesday afternoon.

Should Torres win election, it would represent a substantial win reflective of Bold PAC’s more aggressive approach in primaries. The race had attracted a slew of prominent figures in the South Bronx district, including the controversial Rubén Díaz Sr., a locally well-known reverend who was running third, more than 15 points behind Torres.

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“Díaz has been a larger-than-life figure in Bronx politics longer than I’ve been alive,” Torres told The Hill. “Most people in the political establishment thought the race could not be won and Rubén Díaz Sr. could not be beat.”

Torres gave credit to Bold PAC and Equality PAC, the campaign group associated with the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.

Bold PAC waded into the race early, in December 2019, partly because of the prospect that Díaz, a conservative Democrat who has espoused anti-LGBTQ views, would win in a splintered field.

“Most of the political universe was slow to understand,” said Torres. “The leadership of Bold PAC and Equality PAC saw clearly the risk that a Trump Republican could win the most Democratic district in America and saw clearly that I was the best candidate to defeat him,” he added.

The endorsement from Bold PAC helped provide an edge in fundraising, with Torres raking in $1.3 million as of the latest regulatory filing last month, ahead of New York assemblyman Michael Blake, who had raised $827,000.

The more muscular approach by Bold PAC reflects its goal to bring more diversity to Congress while increasing the Hispanic membership of the CHC, often by investing in candidates that they feel have been ignored by the Democratic establishment.

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Bold PAC has raised nearly $8 million so far this year as of the end of May, almost three-quarters of the $11 million raised in all of 2018 and above the $6  million raised in 2016.

Torres, who would become the first openly gay Afro-Latino in Congress, said he would apply for membership both in the CHC and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) if elected, but would pick the Hispanic caucus if denied the chance to join both.

Previous Afro-Latino members, including New York Democratic Reps. Adriano EspaillatAdriano de Jesus Espaillat CabralLawmakers call for small business aid at all levels of government The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy On the Money: Administration to ban TikTok, WeChat | House moves toward bill to avoid government shutdown | Coronavirus relief bills boosted GDP, CBO says MORE and Antonio DelgadoAntonio Ramon DelgadoMaloney vows to overhaul a House Democratic campaign machine 'stuck in the past' Rundown of the House seats Democrats, GOP flipped on Election Day Next Congress expected to have record diversity MORE, have been forced to choose between membership in one or the other group.

Espaillat is a member of the CHC, Delgado of the CBC.

“If I had to choose I’m going to choose the CHC but I would prefer to be part of both,” said Torres, crediting Bold PAC and its chairman, Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) for that decision.

“Bold PAC was critical to the outcome of the race. Critical,” said Torres.

Under Cárdenas, Bold PAC has on several occasions bet against the grain, sometimes angering the party establishment.

In 2016, for instance, Bold PAC recruited Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) to compete for the Los Angeles seat being vacated by then-Rep. Janice HahnJanice Kay HahnHispanic Democrats build capital with big primary wins Los Angeles County, city to end curfew The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US MORE (D-Calif.), who had backed a different candidate.

After a competitive primary, Barragán — an environmental lawyer and member of the Hermosa Beach City Council — won the general and delivered a seat to the CHC in an election cycle where the group added seven new members to its rolls.

Barragán now serves as the group’s second vice chair, in line to lead the CHC in the future.

In 2018, the CHC added a further ten representatives to its membership, which, including two nonvoting delegates and two senators, now stands at 38.

Cárdenas has said his goal is to take the CHC up to 50 members, an objective that is helping drive its more aggressive approach this year following the Democratic takeover of the House in 2018.

In addition to Torres, Bold PAC successfully supported Teresa Leger Fernandez, who defeated former CIA agent Valerie Plame in the Democratic primary in New Mexico’s 3rd District.

That seat is currently held by Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D), who is running to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallFormer Sen. Carol Moseley Braun stumps for Interior post: 'A natural fit for me' Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Overnight Energy: Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' | GM reverses on Trump, exits suit challenging California's tougher emissions standards | United Nations agency says greenhouse gas emissions accumulating despite lockdown decline MORE.

Bold PAC also endorsed Christina Hale, a Cuban American member of the Indiana House of Representatives, who won her primary in June against four other Democrats to compete for the state’s 5th District congressional seat.

In Texas, the group is betting big on Candace Valenzuela, an underdog candidate who’s also attracted the support EMILY’s List, an influential pro-choice political advocacy group, against Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel.

Bold PAC has also butted heads with progressives in the party.

In Torres’s race, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezKamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far MORE (D-N.Y.) and her Courage to Change PAC endorsed Samelys López, a community organizer who eschewed corporate money.

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Groups like Courage to Change and Justice Democrats have angered some minority Democrats, who privately say the progressive groups too often challenge other minority candidates, siphoning funds from competitive races elsewhere.

And not all of Bold PAC’s endorsements have gone on to win. Indiana state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon came in fifth in the Democratic congressional primary in the 1st District, far behind state Sen. Frank Mrvan in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Pete Visclosky (D).

But the Bold PAC recruitment and endorsement system tends to generate political loyalty, despite its relatively small numbers compared to bigger campaign operations.

Torres personally credited Cárdenas with spotting an opportunity in his district.

“For [Cárdenas] to support me in a race of multiple Latinos required real political courage,” Torres said. “Tony Cárdenas is a force to be reckoned with. I’m a great admirer.”