Just more than half of the state’s eligible Latino voters are registered to vote.
by John Aguilar
Colorado’s Latino voters, long a growing force on the state’s electoral map, are poised to have an even larger impact on the 2020 election — if more of them vote.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are 659,000 eligible Latino voters in Colorado out of a total Latino population of 1.2 million. But barely more than half — 57% — of those eligible voters are actually registered to vote, recent polling from the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute shows.
“It’s an untapped population,” said Celeste Montoya, an associate professor of women and gender studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specializes in political science. “It’s a population to watch, but it’s also a population that has not been fully mobilized.”
And that’s a shortcoming of Colorado’s major political parties, she said.
“Colorado is one of the easiest states to register in, and because there is such a low level of participation, that says the parties are not doing their jobs,” Montoya said.
Colorado’s presidential primary is March 3.
On paper at least, the advantage of harvesting those silent votes is clearly on the Democrats’ side. An election eve poll conducted by Latino Decisions, a Seattle-based opinion research firm, in 2016 showed President Donald Trump garnering a mere 16% of the Latino vote in Colorado. Nationally, the president received 28% of the Latino vote in the election, according to Pew.
If that partisan ratio were extrapolated across all eligible Latinos currently sitting out Colorado’s elections, more than 200,000 additional votes could fall into the Democratic column this year. Not only would that be bad for Trump, it would be unwelcome news for Republican Cory Gardner, who is in an epic struggle to retain his U.S. Senate seat in November.
Just last week, Gardner tied himself closely to the president when he told a crowd of thousands that Trump has “done so much good for Colorado” during a rally with the president in Colorado Springs. Trump has faced harsh criticism for his immigration policies, be it separation of children from their parents at the border or his characterization of some Mexicans as “rapists” during his campaign debut in 2015.
“I don’t think Cory Gardner can pull it out, because he doesn’t have the Latinos,” said Mannie Rodriguez, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Latino Initiative. “If you don’t have the Latino vote, you can’t win.”
That’s a challenge that won’t go unanswered, said Hugo Chavez-Rey, chairman of the Colorado Hispanic Republicans. He said he’s hearing from more and more Latinos — “the younger crowd, middle-aged folks and older folks” — who feel that the Democratic Party has moved too far to the left in recent years.
“There are some Latinos who don’t think they are being served by the Democratic Party anymore,” he said. “They say that this is not the Democratic Party it used to be.”
Whether it’s Colorado’s sex education bill that went into effect last year or the legislature’s Democratic-led effort to kill bills restricting abortion, Chavez-Rey said many Hispanics in the state — especially those who are religious — are concerned with the direction of the Democratic Party.
“The faith community has been mobilized,” he said.
Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition’s Victor Galván Ramirez said it is at the candidates’ peril that they overlook the fast-growing demographic, which now accounts for one of every five Coloradans.
“Candidates cannot ignore that this is an important voter bloc — whether Democrats or Republicans,” said Ramirez, who serves as the coalition’s director of federal campaigns and civic engagement.
Paula Arroyo, gathered with friends at Stoney’s Bar & Grill in Denver to watch a Democratic presidential debate this month, said she supports Sen. Elizabeth Warren as the Democratic nominee.
“She’s a very smart, experienced woman who has the ability to make change because she has done it,” said Arroyo, wearing a Latinas With Warren T-shirt as multiple TVs in the bar blared the debate. “She’s a coalition builder and she works both sides.”
The 69-year-old former education administrator, who has been canvassing Denver’s Latino-heavy Elyria-Swansea neighborhood on behalf of Warren, was also there to see former presidential candidate Julián Castro speak.
Castro, who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has been stumping for Warren since he ended his own bid for the White House in January.
“She’s speaking very powerfully to the issues so many Latinos care the most about, like education, health care and immigration, as well as small business entrepreneurship,” Castro said during a sit-down interview in the back of Stoney’s.
The San Antonio native, who was the sole Latino candidate in the Democratic contest for president, said Warren “has some work to do,” given polling showing that rival Bernie Sanders does well with Hispanics.
The Vermont senator also has the backing of progressive icon U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“We can’t take the Latino community for granted — we can’t assume they’re going to turn out,” Castro said.
Montoya, the CU professor, said Castro’s presence on the campaign trail will only help Warren better connect with Latino communities.
“I think he’s educating her and he’s helping push her on issues that she was already moving on,” she said. “Is it going to give her an edge against Sanders? That has yet to be seen.”
One hopeful sign for Warren, Montoya said, is a poll of registered Latino voters taken in mid-February by Univision Noticias that shows the Massachusetts senator edging out Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden in a head-to-head matchup with Trump — though not by much. Biden is the only major candidate still in the race who hasn’t held a public event in Colorado in this election cycle.
“Friend to the Latino community”
The president doesn’t need a majority of the Latino vote to get re-elected, said state Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican of Mexican heritage who represents Colorado Springs — “he just needs a sizable portion of it.”
“I think it’s extremely important for any candidate to go after these voters and show them how you can make their lives better,” he said. “It’s extremely important for Republicans to show that we’re a friend to the Latino community.”
And Williams said there is plenty of bandwidth beyond Trump’s controversial positions on immigration to connect with Hispanics in Colorado. As support for that hypothesis, the February Univision poll asked registered Latino voters the most important issues they would like to see a president address.
Lowering health care costs was the top issue at 25%, followed by higher incomes at 19%. Protecting immigration rights was listed as the top concern by 11% of respondents, while border security was the No. 1 concern among 12% of poll respondents.
“At the end of the day, Latinos want to make sure there’s a good economy and good access to health care and education,” he said.
Ramirez, with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, acknowledges that “the Latino bloc is not a monolith and older Latinos are more conservative” — but he insists that immigration remains the most salient topic among those he speaks to.
As for Gardner, Williams said his chief focus in his Senate campaign needs to be on issues other than immigration.
“He’s right there with the president on growing the economy and improving education and he should highlight those things,” Williams said. “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Montoya said either party can build bridges to Hispanic voters on any number of issues, and concerns do shift among the Latino electorate depending on gender, age or whether the voter is first generation, second generation or third generation in this country.
While the GOP has “more to overcome” with Latinos, the CU professor said, the Democrats don’t get a free pass in the 2020 election.
“The Democrats have to give Latinos something to vote for,” she said.
John Aguilar is a Denver Post reporter covering hot-button issues such as oil and gas, growth and transportation as they play out in the Denver suburbs. @abuvthefold