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Latino groups bypass Democratic Party for campaign funding

Latino groups bypass Democratic Party for campaign funding
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Hispanic grassroots organizations are scrounging for money outside the major Democratic Party fundraisers, despite signs that Latino voters are primed for record-breaking participation in November.

Voto Latino, a voting advocacy group, reached 280,000 new voter registrations for the 2020 electoral cycle on Friday, with around 25,000 of those registrations happening just in the prior week.

The group is aiming to register half a million new voters by Election Day, hoping to more than double their approximately 177,000 registrations in 2016.

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"We've raised $16 million, most of that money [raised by any] other organization would have come from the unions and Democratic Party. We get zero from the Democratic Party with the exception of $100,000 from SEIU," said María Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino. "Most of our funding is actually coming out of the metric-serving people … of Silicon Valley, and Seattle, and New York."

"We're here, honestly, despite the party," she added.

Voto Latino is playing a special role in the 2020 cycle, as its digital-first, youth-oriented tactics are especially well-suited to bypass the difficulties of registering voters during a pandemic.

Another leading grassroots registration group, Mi Familia Vota, has seen its registration efforts hindered by the pandemic, after registering more than 90,000 new voters in 2016.

"It has been really challenging to go out to the community. We have been very creative finding new ways of registering voters, but the pandemic has affected voter registration all over," said Héctor Sánchez Barba, executive director and CEO of Mi Familia Vota.

The difficulties in mounting traditional registration drives have led the groups to shift some of their efforts to communications and outreach.

But that shift is also driven by a gap in Democratic outreach.

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"What we may be seeing now is those voters that are already registered might not be being reached out to, and that's reflected in the polls," said Sergio García-Ríos, an assistant professor of government and Latino studies at Cornell University.

"It doesn't seem like [Democrats] see the Latino electorate as a key demographic to pursue," said García-Ríos.

Hispanics are one of a handful of demographics vying for attention from Democrats, along with disaffected Republicans and suburban women, among other groups.

Latino grassroots organizations have often accused the Democratic establishment of ignoring Hispanic voters until the last few weeks of the campaign and then blaming low turnout on cultural factors, rather than a lack of outreach.

But the 2020 Democratic presidential primary upended that mentality, as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver Ocasio-Cortez rolls out Twitch channel to urge voting Calls grow for Democrats to ramp up spending in Texas MORE (I-Vt.) took an early lead by focusing on Latino voters overlooked by other campaigns.

Chuck Rocha, the campaign consultant who pitched and operated the Sanders Latino strategy, published a book earlier this month, "Tío Bernie: The Inside Story of How Bernie Sanders Brought Latinos Into the Political Revolution," offering a road map on how to get Hispanic voters out to the polls.

"Starting early and spending lots of money to talk to Latinos is the bedrock of success," Rocha said.

According to him, and counter to common wisdom on campaigns, the crucial voters to reach are first-time and infrequent Latino voters.

Historically plagued by low voter registration numbers, Latino voters have been increasing their participation since 2016, spurred by more direct contact from campaigns and in many cases by adverse reactions to President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE's rhetoric.

But growth in Latino registration is expected every election cycle, following demographic growth; observers of the Hispanic vote will be watching closely in November to see if participation grows faster than population, compared to 2016.

Still, existing Hispanic voters could be the tipping point in swing states like Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Colorado, as well as in emerging battlegrounds like North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.

Kumar said she is confident Arizona will turn blue because of the Hispanic vote in 2020, and "we will help flip either Georgia or Texas."

And for a majority of Hispanics who oppose Trump, the president's rhetoric and actions on issues from immigration to health care could spur participation.

"There is a stark difference between the Biden-Harris vision that does include a pro-immigrant vision, and the Trump administration," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

Hincapié, who co-chaired the immigration table of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, said the administration's actions recall former California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who in the mid-nineties spearheaded a crackdown on immigrants that provoked massive Hispanic participation in California politics.

"[It was a] very similar feeling of a matter of life and death, people were afraid of how they were going to survive," said Hincapié.

But Rocha said the Democratic gains in California came after the party establishment invested in Hispanic outreach to counter Wilson's message.

"They turned that state blue within 10 years … into a Democratic bastion forever, because of a $10 million investment into the Latino community," said Rocha.

That investment centered on registering millions of new voters.

"Then people stayed Democrats," he said.

According to García-Ríos, Democrats are making the mistake of measuring Latino voters based on their current Democratic-Republican split, rather than as a trove of potential Democratic voters.

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"On the Republican side, they know they only need a few — 20 to 30 percent — and I think they have them," said García-Ríos. "Democrats think that 20 to 30 percent is not going to come back."

"I agree in part with that, but this is not a story about sorting, but getting people to vote," he said.

That misunderstanding of the target audience has often led Democrats to redirect their campaign resources to other demographics better understood by traditional establishment consultants.

The Biden campaign has hired a slew of top Latino talent led by Cristóbal Alex, the former head of Latino Victory, a progressive Hispanic political advocacy group.

“Latinos are critical for our path to victory. This is why we are making record investments in mobilizing Latino voters across the country," said Alex in an email to The Hill.

"The pandemic has devastated the community, which is why this election is so important," Alex added. "Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE has a plan to protect public health and rebuild our economy to make sure Latinos have an opportunity to achieve the American Dream. Our investments will highlight how the Biden-Harris Administration will build back better."

But Hispanic advocates over the summer expressed concerns that Alex was given a mission, but no budget.

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"I [thought so] until two weeks ago when they dropped $800,000 on Spanish-language ads," said Rocha.

And the campaign is planning to expand on those ads, with creative done mostly in-house, but avoiding translating and adapting messages originally written for other groups, a common campaign mistake that's often blunted investments in the community.

Still, the money flowing into Latino organizations from traditional donors is paltry, compared to the big Democratic super PACs.

Rocha's Nuestro PAC is the biggest Hispanic super PAC — he's raised a little more than $4 million so far, compared to the hundreds of millions raised by the Democratic Party's top super PACs.

"All of those PACs are run by elected officials who have influence with organizations and donors. I don't have a Joe Biden, I don't have a Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerTrump casts doubt on hopes for quick stimulus deal after aides expressed optimism Schumer says he had 'serious talk' with Feinstein, declines to comment on Judiciary role Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE," said Rocha.

But Rocha said a substantial investment in Latino voters now could replicate the party's success in California.

"They get a more progressive Democratic Congress because Latinos will be in power for a long time," said Rocha.

— Updated at 9:42 a.m.