In the lead-up to Tuesday’s elections, candidates on both sides of the aisle deployed a variety of tactics to manipulate the Latino vote, which pundits predicted would play a pivotal role in the final results. But when one evaluates the winners and losers of Tuesday’s races, it seems that all the pandering to Hispanics—“Hispandering,” if you will—was ultimately unnecessary. In fact, a bigger factor at play was Democrats’ refusal to stand up on behalf of Latinos and Latinas.
This summer, President Obama announced that he would delay executive action on immigration reform until after November, which proved to be the last straw for Latinos waiting for a move on the issue. In fact, immigration reform was the most important issue for Latinos at the ballot this year, as confirmed in an election eve poll from political opinion firm Latino Decisions.
Aware that this was a topic of contention, but unwilling to promise any real policy changes concerning it, many candidates dug deep into expensive ad campaigns to bring out the Latino vote through shallow maneuvers. In Texas, the winner of Tuesday’s gubernatorial election, Republican Greg Abbott, faced an uphill climb to convince the ten million Latinos who live in his state that he was the right candidate for them. Running against reproductive rights champion Wendy Davis, he understood the importance of speaking to voters of color, ultimately spending $1.1 million on Spanish-language ads. The first of these included his Latina mother-in-law and was aired during the Mexico versus Brazil World Cup Game. On the campaign trail, Abbott frequently reminded voters that if elected, his wife would be the first Latina First Lady of Texas.
Abbott’s “Hispandering” was not nearly as effective as he might have hoped, however, as Davis ultimately brought in 55 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit polls. This is unsurprising upon examining Abbott’s policies, which make it clear that his relationship with his Latina wife does not translate to a friendly relationship with all Latinos or Latinas. Once he comes into office, Abbott has promised to work to repeal Obamacare, which would reinstate enormous barriers to health care for thousands of newly insured Latinos. He also supports the further militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, which already funnels tax dollars toward private prison corporations and weapons manufacturers. And although Abbott remained relatively quiet on immigration during his campaign, he has not distanced himself from the Texas GOP and its hardline stance calling for an end to in-state tuition for undocumented students and a ban on “sanctuary cities” that do not enforce immigration laws.
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On the other hand, Abbott’s opponent Wendy Davis was relatively effective at speaking to communities of color, particularly women of color, promising that if elected, she would fight to increase the Texas minimum wage and sign the Texas Equal Pay Act into law. However, even Davis was unable to overcome Latino dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s immigration reform failures on a national level, which may have contributed to a low Latino turnout during midterm elections. Texas also has one of the most restrictive voter ID rules in the country, making it even harder for people of color to cast their vote.
Neither did Latino voters make the needed difference for Democrats in Florida’s gubernatorial elections. Faced with Tea Party gubernatorial incumbent Rick Scott or former Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, there was no great choice for communities of color. In spite of this, both candidates recognized the need to court Latino voters, who make up a relatively small but key percentage of the electorate in their state: Both chose Latino running mates and participated in a debate on the popular Latino news network Telemundo. Gov. Rick Scott, in particular, launched what Reuters’ David Adams called “the biggest and earliest Spanish-language TV ad campaign in Florida history.” Scott even took Spanish classes, running ads that featured former Gov. Jeb Bush encouraging voters in fluent Spanish to support his campaign.
However, like Abbott in Texas, Scott’s track record on Latino issues is abysmal. Polling shows that Latinos rated access to health care as a relatively significant priority this election. Yet as Florida governor, Scott did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even with the available federal funding for startup costs. He has actively opposed Obamacare and promised to continue to do so, and his stance on raising the minimum wage—also of concern to Latino and Latina voters—is unclear at best. (In the past, he has opposed an increase, but in a recent debate with Charlie Christ, he awkwardly came out as supporting one, so long as the private sector sets them.) Scott’s record on immigration is equally poor, considering that he once supported an Arizona-style immigration bill.
Most likely because of Scott’s stance on these issues, his opponent Charlie Crist did better with Latinos and voters of color in general. But even with his fair share of “Hispandering”—check out this Spanish ad narrated by his Latina running mate, Annette Taddeo—the former Republican was unable to clearly communicate to Latinos how his policies would be different from the many other Democrats who have been talking the talk, but not walking the walk, when it comes to immigration. Crist did not win over enough Latinos to seize the Florida governor’s seat on Tuesday.
Like in Florida and Texas, Latinos were poised to make a big difference in Georgia’s elections. They represent the fastest-growing voter bloc: In 2003, 10,000 were registered to vote, and 220,000 are registered now. In Georgia, however, rather than trying to engage those voters through shallow maneuvers—or, as unlikely as it may seem, legitimate action—politicians poured their resources into disenfranchising them. Republicans like Secretary of State Brian Kemp required that every ballot go through a complex screening process that ultimately resulted in the reported loss of at least 40,000 votes, mostly from voters of color. Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter targeted almost all of his campaigning at, as the American Prospect put it, “white dudes in suburbia,” altogether ignoring communities of color.
This kind of suppression and apathy, combined with overall disappointment with both parties, means that David Perdue—who supports repealing Obamacare—now holds Georgia’s Senate seat, and Nathan Deal—who once assumed a young woman was undocumented because she was Latina—will remain governor of the state.
The GOP enjoyed a sweeping victory Tuesday, with Republicans gaining control of the Senate, maintaining control of the House, and winning many key gubernatorial races. However, this should not be taken as a sign that conservatives are suddenly learning to speak to Latinos, people of color, or women in a way they can hear. On the contrary, exit polls show that white men won the GOP victory Tuesday. No amount of money can repackage political platforms that do not represent Latinos’ and Latinas’ concerns about immigration, poverty, education, and reproductive rights into robotic Spanish. English may not be the first language of many Latinos, but that does not mean that we can’t understand “Hispandering” when we see it.
So what’s the takeaway? It’s time Democrats start listening. In this election, Latinos showed that they would not show up for politicians who do not take effective and meaningful action on issues they care about. With would-be legislators and governors concentrating their efforts on expensive Spanish-language advertising, lukewarm get-out-the-vote efforts, or voter suppression laws, neither party actually did any impactful outreach to overcome the very deep disillusionment Latinos feel for politics. So although the Republicans’ paltry attempts at “Hispandering” may not have done them any particular good, Democrats’ refusal to commit to real change harmed them even more.
After deciding to delay any executive action on immigration reform, Obama has faced multiple hecklers at different speaking events who publicly hold him accountable for his inaction. At the most recent one, he told the protester to “go protest the Republicans.” Hopefully, he and other Democrats understood loud and clear from these elections: Latinos are holding you accountable. Do something.