The political power of Latinos has never been stronger in California.
They are the largest ethnic group in the state and make up roughly 30% of registered voters. They have propelled Democratic victories in California for decades, helping the party win supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature, where Latino senators and Assembly members hold powerful positions and pass some of the most immigrant-friendly legislation in the country.
But as Gov. Gavin Newsom tries to prevail in a recall election in a matter of days, the very Latino voters he is relying on appear to be disengaged and ambivalent about the prospect of his being ousted from office.
In 2018, exit polls showed Newsom with support from roughly two-thirds of all Latinos. Now, polling suggests Latinos are almost evenly split on the recall. And so far, just 15% of all registered Latino voters have mailed in their ballots, compared with 29% of white voters, according to Political Data Inc., a Sacramento-based research group.
For many Latino voters, the mixed feelings stem from a continued struggle with the pandemic, as they face higher infection and death rates, as well as unemployment. For others, there is a deep disconnect with the Democratic Party and Newsom himself, a multimillionaire Napa Valley winery owner whom they view as aloof and distant.
Interviews with Latino voters, strategists and advocates throughout the state reveal a frustration among Hispanics that Newsom has never tapped into. The pandemic has further entrenched inequality statewide and deepened the anger over the pervasive class divide Newsom’s wealth only highlights.
Karla Ramirez, 43, a Democrat who lives in Downey, a heavily Latino suburb southeast of Los Angeles, said she believed that Newsom had generally handled the pandemic well. But Ramirez, who owns a commercial cleaning business with her husband, said she planned to sit out the race and did not have the wherewithal to pay attention to state politics with the virus still raging. Her 9-year-old daughter and her husband both tested positive for COVID-19 and have been recovering from mild symptoms.
All registered voters received ballots by mail and have the option of either mailing them in, dropping them off at ballot boxes or voting in person from now until Election Day on Sept. 14. Voting by mail is no longer an option for Ramirez.
“I got my ballot, and I tossed it in the trash. I don’t feel I’d be fair,” Ramirez said. “I’m busy making sure my kids get back to school and get vaccinated.”
With just one week to go before ballot boxes close, public polling suggests that Newsom will remain in office. But many see his struggle with Hispanic voters as a troubling warning sign for Democrats both in the state and nationally, a glimpse of the consequences for failing to deeply engage with a vital political force whose allegiance is up for grabs.
Democrats fretted after the 2020 presidential election, when many Hispanic voters in Florida, Texas and other parts of the country swung toward President Donald Trump. But the problem is potentially even more consequential in a state where Latinos make up nearly a third of the electorate.
“The real issue is that Gov. Newsom has not engendered enthusiasm among Latino voters,” said Thomas A. Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who has been involved in California politics for decades. “That is part of why he is threatened. They have not been motivated by his policies and his practices, and he has utterly failed to address the Latino community as a Latino community and acknowledge its importance in the state.”
Newsom’s campaign aides deny that they have failed to engage or listen to Latino voters. Aides point to his expansion of Medi-Cal to residents older than 50, including immigrants in the country illegally, and a lengthy moratorium on evictions during the pandemic as two key policies they say have helped thousands of Latinos in California. His campaign has repeatedly boasted of appointing Alex Padilla to the U.S. Senate, making him the first Latino from the state to serve in that body.
Nathan Click, a spokesperson for Newsom’s campaign, said the governor’s strategy in reaching out to Latino voters had been essentially unchanged. All along, Click said, the campaign viewed Latinos — and young Latinos in particular — as difficult but essential to reach.
“We’ve known since Day 1 that voters who vote in presidential years but don’t vote in midterm elections and really don’t vote in special elections are the No. 1 target for all of our efforts,” he said.
A generation ago, Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that would have barred immigrants in the country illegally from receiving most public services, gained widespread support among California Republicans, including Gov. Pete Wilson. The anti-immigrant measure largely drove Latino voters away from the Republican Party and into the embrace of Democrats, who have publicly credited the ballot measure as central to their rise to power.
But many Latino voters are too young to remember the battle over Proposition 187 in the early 1990s and do not feel any particular loyalty to Democrats. For all the talk of Latino political potential in California, no governor in recent memory has effectively rallied Latinos to become staunch supporters.
“We haven’t adequately made the case for a long enough period of time that things are different and better, especially for young Latinos,” said Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents a heavily Latino and working-class area of San Diego in the state Assembly. “It’s as if doing no harm to Latinos has become enough for a lot of Democratic politicians.”
The recall is also coming as many are still reeling from the effect of the pandemic. Latinos in California were far more likely to contract and die from the virus than were white residents. The unemployment rate among Latinos remains above 10%, and many Latino small-business owners have lost significant income in the past year and a half.
Frank Oropeza, 27, a barber in Montebello, just east of Los Angeles, said he had voted for President Joe Biden last year and considered himself a Democrat. But he said he had given little thought to how to vote in the recall. He said he had been torn, reading posts on social media from fellow barbers and hair stylists who were in favor of recalling Newsom, who twice shut down their businesses, and from others who viewed things differently.
“I’m so easily swayed,” he said with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Close your eyes and throw a dart.’ “
Oropeza said that he understood the need for some pandemic restrictions. But he was frustrated that barbers and hair stylists had been required to stop working for a second time, even after they had implemented precautions such as universal masking.
The criticism is one Newsom’s opponents have jumped on, using the argument to try to persuade more Latinos to vote in favor of the recall.
“Many of those small businesses that closed forever are owned by Black and brown people,” Larry Elder, the conservative talk radio host who has become the Republican front-runner in a crowded field of recall candidates, told reporters last week.
At the virtual news conference, Elder appeared alongside Gloria Romero, a Democrat and former state lawmaker who is now a vocal advocate for charter schools. She was featured prominently in a recent Spanish advertisement the Elder campaign sent to Latino voters via text.
“This is about sending a message about how the Democratic Party has largely abandoned Latinos,” Romero said. “We’ve been taken for granted.”
Latino voters are a force in every part of the state and represent a wide spectrum of political views. While college-educated liberals in urban centers are part of the Democratic core base, working-class moderates in the suburbs of the Inland Empire and Silicon Valley are essential to winning statewide. And in Orange County, the Central Valley and the far northern reaches of the state, religious voters and libertarians have helped elect Republicans in key congressional districts.
And there are signs that Republicans are having some success courting support from Hispanic voters, including first-time voters.
“I am tired of the way things are,” said Ruben Sanchez, 43, a construction worker who lives in Simi Valley, a conservative stronghold north of Los Angeles. Sanchez, who attends an evangelical church, said that he had cast his first ballot in 2020 and voted for Trump largely because of his religious beliefs and that he planned to vote for Elder in the recall. “This governor and this state are not for working people, for people who care about this country.”
Officials with Newsom’s campaign have promised a blitz targeting Latino voters in the final days before the election. Last week, the Newsom campaign released an advertisement featuring Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the former presidential candidate who became so popular among many young Latinos in California that some refer to him as Tío Bernie, meaning Uncle Bernie.
During the Democratic presidential primary, the Sanders campaign focused much of its outreach on Latino voters from the beginning, opening campaign offices in heavily Latino neighborhoods and releasing videos meant to be passed around on social media. The efforts were widely credited as a kind of playbook for effectively reaching Latino voters, and some Democrats have criticized the Newsom campaign for not doing more to replicate them.
Beyond outreach, Sanders appealed to many young Latino voters in large part because of his ideology, calling for “Medicare for All,” forgiving of student loans and sweeping bills to combat climate change.
“Latinos still have some core frustrations that Bernie was speaking to that have not been resolved,” said Rafael Navar, who was the California state director for the Sanders campaign. “We’ve had high death rates, high unemployment and massive inequality.”
Despite the skepticism over Newsom, many Hispanic voters say they are fearful of what would happen if a Republican were to take office. Yet even as they are repelled by the Republican brand of politics, some liberal voters do not call themselves enthusiastic Democrats. Party loyalty, they said, is not as important to them as supporting a candidate who will address their concerns more directly.
Ernesto Ruvalcaba, 27, a mapping specialist who lives in Los Angeles, said that while he had cast his ballot against the recall because Newsom was “getting the job done,” he remained dissatisfied.
“Things he did, he could’ve done better,” Ruvalcaba said. “The parties are just really old — both of them. They just need to break up.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.