The Memo

The Memo: Jill Biden, Mayra Flores shine light on Democrats’ Latino problem

Two recent controversies are exposing the way the political ground is shifting around Latino voters.

The change isn’t yet catastrophic for Democrats. But it’s giving them cause for alarm.

In short, expectations that Latino voters would be a solid Democratic bloc in perpetuity, buoying the party’s fortunes as the nation becomes ever more diverse, have been dashed. 

Although Latinos still lean heavily Democratic overall, Republicans have made significant inroads.

This is the backdrop against which the two recent furors played out.

Earlier this month, first lady Jill Biden apologized after comparing Latinos to “breakfast tacos” during a speech to an advocacy group in San Antonio. 

Though Biden was supposedly trying to demonstrate her knowledge of the diversity of the Latino community, her terminology was clumsy at best. She didn’t help her cause by mangling the pronunciation of “bodegas.”

Republicans made sure her gaffe would not be easily forgotten, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeting sardonically that “personally, I’m a chorizo, egg & cheese” followed by three taco emojis. 

More seriously, Cruz asserted during his podcast that Democrats “look down on minorities.” He added:

“The fact that this White House wrote this into a speech … I think it is indicative of just how badly Biden and the Democrats are doing with Hispanics nationally — and I think we are going to see a real sea change in this election.”

The first lady’s spokesman duly issued an apology, saying that her words had been intended only to convey “pure admiration and love for the Latino community.”

The gaffe was a head-scratcher even inside the White House, not least because the first lady has a number of Latinos among her senior staff.

Then another row erupted that was less high-profile, but just as telling.

In Texas, a blogger who had received money from the campaign of Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) attacked the recently elected Rep. Mayra Flores (R-Texas) in racist terms.

NBC News reported that the blog had referred to Flores as “Miss Frijoles” no fewer than 21 times in less than a month, right after Gonzalez’s campaign had cut it a check for $1,200.

Flores, a 36-year-old, staunchly conservative Latina, won a special election last month in Texas’s 34th District. In doing so, she became the first Mexican-born congresswoman ever.

Redistricting has nudged Gonzalez, who represents an adjacent area, to contest the 34th District in November, setting up a relatively rare incumbent vs. incumbent race.

The congresswoman accused the Gonzalez campaign of running “racist ads against me,” while the congressman’s campaign manager told NBC that “of course” he was against referring to her in derogatory terms.

The Biden and Flores issues may not have enduring impact, but they have roiled waters that were already unsettled.

“They are not huge, determining factors,” said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic operative who served as a senior adviser on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2020 presidential campaign. “But do they make my job as a Democratic operative harder? Sure. Should we think about where we advertise more, or about our speech more? Sure.”

Daniel Garza, the president and founder of the conservative Libre Initiative, said the Flores row was especially potent. 

Biden’s “tacos” comment, he said, felt well-intentioned but awkward.

“But the part about Miss Frijoles? That was intentional, that was deliberate, that was meant to demean and debase. And by using ugly stereotypes, that brought back feelings of ‘otherness’ and that you are treated as something different than fully American. That’s why the blowback was so intense.”

This all comes at a time when the Latino vote appears to be in flux. 

Wind the clock back six years, and then-candidate Donald Trump was predicted to do dismally with Latino voters. 

He had, after all, launched his campaign with the accusation that Mexico was sending “rapists” across the southern border. The core of his migration policy was his famous promise to “Build the Wall!”

Yet, in the end, Trump did better with Latino voters in 2016 than a far more conventional GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, had done four years prior. In 2020, Trump improved his share of the vote again in almost four-fifths of the nation’s 100 most Latino counties.

Democrats were chagrined not just by Trump’s performance but by disappointing performances for their party generally with Latinos, especially in South Florida and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.

An in-depth report by Democratic firm Equis late last year acknowledged that the pandemic and the economy had played a part. 

The report found that Trump and the GOP’s greater resistance to COVID-related lockdowns played well with Hispanics who are, as a whole, less likely than white non-Hispanics to have jobs that can be performed from home.

But it also suggested that Democrats had been hurt by the suggestion they had gone too far left, toward socialism, and were too lax on border security.

The “socialism” attacks were said to be especially effective with communities that have a collective memory of fleeing hard-left regimes, notably Florida’s Cuban Americans, but also Nicaraguan and Venezuelan Americans.

The border issue was said to have resonated particularly strongly in south Texas where Tejanos — Hispanic people who have lived in the same area for generations, in some case dating back to when the region was part of Mexico — are not themselves immigrants.

Democrats being Democrats, the report’s findings were themselves controversial.

Rocha pushes back against the idea that the “socialist” label is a millstone, pointing to Sanders’s strong performance with Latinos in the 2020 Democratic primary as a rebuttal.

Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi argued that the idea of a major realignment among Hispanic voters was being exaggerated.

In November’s midterms, Amandi insisted, “Democrats are going to win the Latino vote and win it overwhelmingly. The question is, do Democrats have the ability … to replicate the historical support levels they had with Latino voters in 2012 and 2018.” 

Yet even Amandi noted that the nature of the Latino community — fast-growing, disproportionately young and internally diverse — left no room for complacency for those courting its political support.

“It is a vote that is in a constant state of renewal,” he said. “Democrats cannot afford to take their foot off the accelerator because at every election there are lots of new voters, and they don’t have those long-held perceptions of the party brand.”

The problem is the Biden and Flores rows aren’t about taking a foot off the accelerator.

They’re about grinding the gears and lurching into reverse at a time when Democrats can ill afford such errors.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Chuck Rocha Democrats Donald Trump Jill Biden Jill Biden Latino voters Mayra Flores Ted Cruz Vicente Gonzalez
See all Hill.TV See all Video