Hit hard by pandemic, Hispanic voters could be key to California recall

Damian Dovarganes/AP
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, shown from behind, greets resident Israel Ortiz after visiting a mobile vaccination site at Ramona Gardens Recreation Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 21, 2021. With the Sept. 14 recall fast approaching, Latino advocates say engaging their communities could be key to his survival.

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As California speeds toward its second gubernatorial recall election in history on Sept. 14, the outcome may hinge on its largest ethnic group. Latinos, for years a loyal voting bloc for Democrats, have suffered disproportionately from pandemic job losses and deaths. As the largest group of parents in the state, they have been widely affected by school closures.

At the same time, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has expanded health care to unauthorized immigrants and is now sending out $600 stimulus checks to residents who earn up to $75,000. 

Why We Wrote This

Hispanics have suffered disproportionately high death rates and job losses from the pandemic. If they take their frustrations out on California Gov. Gavin Newsom, it could presage further erosion in this voting bloc’s support for the Democratic Party.

statewide California poll this week shows 58% of likely voters favor the governor in this deep blue state, though earlier polls had been far tighter. Even a narrow win would suggest Democratic vulnerability; a sacking would be a political earthquake. Nationally, former President Donald Trump made real inroads with Hispanic voters in 2020, picking up more than any Republican presidential candidate since at least George W. Bush in 2004.

“Latinos in California, specifically in working-class neighborhoods, have really borne the brunt of the pandemic and are very much at a crossroads,” says Steven Almazan, volunteering at a voter registration table along with other young Democrats in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

Ron Flores has had it with California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom. So he put up a gigantic sign on the corner of Beach Boulevard and Katella Avenue in the Southern California city of Stanton, where about half the population is Hispanic. “¡BASTA!” reads the first line, followed by a translation, “(Enough is Enough) Recall Newsom.”

On Tuesday evening, about 18 people rallied with Mr. Flores on this busy corner in the greater Los Angeles area, waving “Recall” flags and signs as cars streamed past, some honking approval. The clutch of supporters, several of them Hispanic Republicans like Mr. Flores, aired a long list of grievances: mask and vaccine mandates; schools, businesses, and churches closed by the pandemic; high taxes; unaffordable gasoline; rising crime.

People are frustrated, says Mr. Flores – and not just Republicans. At a Friday night football game last week, he says, a number of Hispanic Democrats told him they’ll vote to boot the governor in a special recall election Sept. 14. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat,” he says. “They are upset.”

Why We Wrote This

Hispanics have suffered disproportionately high death rates and job losses from the pandemic. If they take their frustrations out on California Gov. Gavin Newsom, it could presage further erosion in this voting bloc’s support for the Democratic Party.

As California speeds toward its second gubernatorial recall election in history, the outcome may hinge on just how deeply these frustrations run among its largest ethnic group – for years an important and loyal voting bloc for Democrats. Latinos have suffered disproportionately from pandemic job losses and deaths, as front-line health care and service workers living in underserved communities. They are the largest group of parents in the state, and thus have been widely affected by school closures. At the same time, the governor is a Democrat who has expanded health care to unauthorized immigrants and is now sending out $600 stimulus checks to residents who earn up to $75,000. 

“Latinos in California, specifically in working-class neighborhoods, have really borne the brunt of the pandemic and are very much at a crossroads when it comes to determining what is a priority for their own state, [and] also their own future,” says Steven Almazan, who spent Sunday volunteering at a voter registration table along with other young Democrats in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Mr. Almazan grew up in this Latino enclave and served on the neighborhood council.

Latino turnout is typically low in off-year elections, and with this one coming unusually early, Democrats worry they don’t have enough time to make the case. Mail-in ballots, which have been sent to every voter, are already being filled out and returned. The Hispanic electorate here also skews young – in 2020, many voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won the California Democratic primary and just days ago began showing up in an anti-recall ad.

A statewide California poll this week shows 58% of likely voters favor the governor in this deep blue state, though other earlier polls had been far tighter. Even a narrow win would suggest Democratic vulnerability; a sacking would be a political earthquake. Both parties view the special election as a barometer for the 2022 midterms, when the president’s party usually loses seats in Congress.

Nationally, former President Donald Trump made real inroads with this population, and not just among Cuban Americans in South Florida, says Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at the Pew Research Center. Mr. Trump won over Hispanic voters along the Texas border and at the precinct level in cities as diverse as New York, Philadelphia, Orlando, and Dallas. The majority of Hispanics still went for Joe Biden, but Mr. Trump picked up more Hispanic voters than any Republican presidential candidate since at least George W. Bush in 2004, says Mr. Lopez. He adds: “Perhaps Latino voters are a group that may be more up for grabs than either political party is aware.”

Poor outreach and a confusing ballot

Latino community leaders in California cite poor outreach by all of the campaigns and a confusing ballot with 46 replacement candidates. Christian Arana, vice president of policy at the Latino Community Foundation in San Francisco, says voting is not top of mind for many Latino voters because they have so much else to contend with. “Why would I rush to turn in my ballot when I need to rush to turn in my rent relief application [because] I might get evicted two weeks after the recall?” He’s concerned that some Latinos might not even know about the election.

“If Democrats can’t mobilize Latino voters to save a Democratic governor, how on earth can you ask them to save a Democratic Congress, and thus the Biden agenda next year? It’s that serious,” says Mr. Arana, whose group builds philanthropy and political participation. “You can’t continue to have conversations with us around elections. This conversation has to be every single day.”

Things looked particularly dicey for Democrats last month when the FiveThirtyEight average of polls showed voters statistically tied on the recall question. A few polls showed either half of Hispanic voters or a majority supported kicking out the governor – a big surprise, given that Latinos have heavily favored Democrats in the Golden State ever since former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson pushed anti-immigrant measures nearly three decades ago.

But Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant with expertise in the Latino vote, discounts those polls for their small sub-sample size, and predicts the recall will follow traditional voting patterns.

“Gavin Newsom will do just fine with the Latino vote. There’s just too much toxicity in the Republican brand,” he says. Hispanics who have lost jobs, family members, and friends to the pandemic will side with the governor’s approach to fighting COVID-19, he says, which includes vaccine mandates or regular testing for state employees and health care workers. It’s a “difficult choice,” he says, but Latinos will choose health over jobs in this election. 

This week’s poll by the Public Policy Institute of California supports Mr. Madrid’s assessment, with 66% of Latinos opposing the recall, and a similar percentage supporting requirements of proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter certain spaces. 

And yet, “Latinos are not a lock” for Democrats, says Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California in Sacramento. They are not monolithic, she reminds, explaining that before California’s Republicans pushed a 1994 anti-immigrant ballot measure that galvanized Latinos, the group was closer to an even split between the parties. She has long held that Republicans have an opportunity with Latinos but have failed to capitalize on it.

Mr. Flores agrees, saying the GOP in California is “stuck” in the 1950s and ’60s, when winning was easy in Orange County, where he lives. He has twice read “Tío Bernie,” a book by Chuck Rocha about the candidate’s groundbreaking Latino outreach. Mr. Flores formed “¡BASTA!” in April to register people of color, especially Hispanics, as Republicans and to run for office – and to vote out Governor Newsom. They are starting soccer leagues, holding Spanish-language town halls, registering folks at supermarkets, and operating phone banks. The group particularly objects to changes in schools around transgender rights and critical race theory, and favors school choice.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Ron Flores rallies on Aug. 31, 2021, in Stanton, California, for the recall of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. His group "BASTA!" aims to register people of color as Republicans, especially the state's many Hispanics, and to encourage them to run for political office.

Three former Democrats waving signs with Mr. Flores on Tuesday said the party had moved too far left. “You grow up in it,” says José Arturo Robles, speaking of the Democratic Party. “I’m still basically a liberal, but I don’t believe in government’s desire to be a Big Brother.” For instance, public health care is OK, but he doesn’t believe in mandates. He just moved from San Francisco, which he described as overrun by crime and homelessness – he himself has experienced homelessness. “That city is over.” Last year, he voted for Mr. Trump.

“The anger is at the Republicans”

Governor Newsom has tied the recall to Trump supporters and emphasized the dangers of rolling back mask and vaccine mandates. He has a foil in the leading GOP candidate, conservative radio host Larry Elder, a Black Trump supporter who makes frequent appearances on Fox News.

Latinos “are so angry, upset, and sad” about the toll of the pandemic, but “the anger is not at Governor Newsom. The anger is at the Republicans behind the recall,” says Angelica Sales, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, whose political action group has launched a get-out-the-vote effort called “Defendio Mi CA” – Defending My California. The recall petition, which is printed in the voter guide, is clearly anti-immigrant, she says, suggesting that unauthorized foreign nationals are favored over citizens and cost the state in taxes, homelessness, and quality of life.

That hits “close to home” for Democratic voter Gabi Trujillo, who is home for the summer in Menlo Park in Silicon Valley. She comes from an immigrant family – her mother sought asylum from El Salvador and is now a U.S. citizen. Ms. Trujillo, who teaches English in Spain, says the governor is on the right track by addressing “subsistence needs” for everyone, regardless of immigration status, because “it keeps a population productive and contributing.”

As for the pandemic, “no year in history” has been like the last one, she says, and no governor had a playbook on how to handle it. Mistakes were made. But a vaccine mandate is not one of them. “We have vaccines in school. I consider this just another one.”

She, her brother, and her mother all plan to vote against the recall.

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