Lessons on Hispanic turnout from California special election

Lessons on Hispanic turnout from California special election
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The special election to fill California's empty House seat presented unexpected challenges for incoming Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), for whom the campaign was expected to be a cakewalk.

For Hispanic campaign operatives working with Gomez, those challenges translated into tough lessons about turning out Latino voters, a historically difficult task.

Gomez won the election Tuesday to replace former Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraObama joins Biden to tout record ObamaCare enrollment numbers Biden walks fine line with probe into coronavirus origins Senate Latino Democrats warn about low Hispanic vaccination rates MORE (D-Calif.), who in January became California's attorney general.


"There were a lot of important lessons learned here for the work we're going to do in Texas and Florida and beyond," said Cristobal Alex, president of Latino Victory Fund (LVF), a political group that supported Gomez.

Gomez's key challenges were voter fatigue and the potential for overconfidence.

"Coming out of November 8, 2016, we'll never sit back and take a race that we're expected to win for granted," said Alex, who worked for Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump asks Biden to give Putin his 'warmest regards' Huma Abedin announces book deal Mystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records MORE’s presidential campaign.

Gomez was the early favorite and he received major endorsements, including from Becerra, California Gov. Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, but his campaign feared voting fatigue would keep the Latino base disengaged.

"This was the fourth election in four months and sixth in the past year," said Mayra Macias, political director for LVF.

Even without such fatigue, Latino voters are notoriously difficult to get to the polls, with low participation blamed intermittently on lack of interest, language barriers and other socioeconomic factors.

Gomez's rival, Democrat Robert Lee Ahn, saw an opportunity in running in a low-turnout election against a front-runner with a low-turnout base.

Ahn ran an effective, self-funded campaign focused on early voting and high participation from the district's sizable Korean-American community.

Although Korean voters represent only 6 percent of the district's electorate, Ahn's effective early voting operation put the Gomez campaign on the defensive.

Ahn gambled on high turnout from his base, fired up to see the first Korean-American in Congress in more than 20 years, to outperform the district's large Latino population.

"Around May 19, we noticed that Korean voters had returned their absentee ballots at about a two-to-one rate to Jimmy's core Latino voters — that's a huge gap,” Alex said.

Faced with those numbers, the Gomez camp actively pursued individual Latino voters to return their mail-in ballots.

"We spent a lot of time calling and knocking on Latinos' doors, reminding them to turn in their ballot. We even texted every Latino in the district, from Jimmy, pleading with them to please send in their ballot. This was a big part of Jimmy's win," said Chuck Rocha, president of Solidarity Strategies, a campaign consulting firm that worked for Gomez.

Latinos tend to vote more often when early and mail-in voting are allowed, but Hispanics still fail to return their ballots at higher rates than other demographic groups.

"Latino participation is always up in places where there is early vote and mail in vote. Because Latinos have jobs, and most of the time two or three of them, so it's hard to find time to vote," said Rocha.

California's voting laws are among the most liberal in the country, prioritizing participation and registration. Secretary of State Alex Padilla has been at the forefront of designing electoral legislation to drive up participation.

"In Jimmy's race, there was a new law where you can pick up a person's mail-in ballot and drop it off for them, there again being a positive tool for busy, working Latino families," Rocha said.

"Secretary Padilla in California has done a remarkable job in modernizing their election system," Alex said. "There's a reason folks face fewer challenges."

For groups such as LVF and Solidarity Strategies, the Gomez election was the first post-2016 Latino-district race. It's the first step in preparing for 2018's midterm elections, where Hispanic candidates will run in states with more restrictive electoral laws.

"If this district were in Texas, the key lesson here is we'd have to start much earlier than we did in California,” Alex said.

While getting out the vote in Latino-heavy districts is likely to remain a challenge, Alex and Rocha maintain they've seen better results by recruiting campaign operatives from within the community.

"We think that when it comes to engaging Latino voters, it really makes sense to have an organization that is culturally competent, understands the voters and more importantly, shares the values of the community," Alex said.