Latino voters in California are going to determine who the nation’s most populous state sends as its next U.S. senator, says a leading national political consultant, speaking about the vacancy left behind when longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein retires at the end of her term next year. Three members of the state’s congressional delegation are part of a growing list of candidates vying for the seat and because statewide the vote is overwhelmingly Democratic, the one who wins that primary would likely head to the nation’s capital. 

“They’re (Latinos) going to determine who the senator will be in that primary and maybe in that general election,” said strategist Chuck Rocha, who made history in 2016 as the first Latino to helm a presidential campaign as the top operative on the Bernie Sanders campaign and that even resulted in a book, “Tío Bernie: The Inside Story of How Bernie Sanders Brought Latinos into The Political Revolution” illustrated by the award-winning political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz. 

Chuck Rocha, strategist on Latino vote

“The thing that troubles me,” says Rocha, “is I haven’t seen any senior Latino operatives hired in any of these (California Senate) races, and that most of them have hired all white-led consulting firms.”

So why are Latino political consultants important?

“Latinos are the fastest-growing part of the electorate and they are some of the more persuadable voters participating in elections (these days). So unless you want to rely on white people to tell you how to reach Latinos, you probably should have Latinos on your team at a senior level and as ownership in consulting firms,” Rocha says. “The biggest difference we made (on the Sanders campaign) was we were senior strategists for the entire campaign, not just senior Latino strategists for the Latino department. So because I was running the entire campaign with a small staff, I can make sure that the Latino outreach program was interwoven within the strategy of the entire campaign. That’s hardly ever done but it was only done because there was a Latino at the table making the decisions.”

Rocha adds that for too long Democratic campaigns have looked at the Latino vote as a done deal.

“It’s a losing strategy to assume that Latinos are going to vote one way so focus on other groups. In California you saw more movement from Latinos to the Republican Party (in the last election) than you did in almost any other state. The trend is moving away from the Democrats in California and a lot of that is based off of the flawed strategy of white consultants for the Democratic Party there in the past. They didn’t prioritize having enough Latinos in senior supervisory positions in the past, so Latinos were an afterthought that they were just going to vote Democrat anyway, which has been a fool’s errand,” Rocha tells CALÓ NEWS, adding that Latinos will also determine who controls Congress. 

There are 10 congressional districts with significant Latino populations and are considered the 10 biggest elections in the country – three of them are in California and happen to be in districts not only with a large Latino presence, but in districts won by Republicans on the congressional side and by Joe Biden on the presidential side. All three are part of 18 congressional districts nationwide that voted for Biden in 2020 while being won or held by a Republican in Congress. 

Congressional District 13 includes portions of San Joaquin Valley in the central part of the state, and where Republican John Duarte narrowly won over Democratic opponent Adam Gray 50.2% to 49.8%. 

Congressional District 22: Includes some of the San Joaquin Valley, and most of Kings, Tulare, and Kern counties, and parts of Bakersfield. With 46% percent of Latino residents, it is considered a majority Latino district. In another narrow win, Republican David Valadao bested Democrat Rudy Salas 52%-49%.

Congressional District 27: The district represented by Republican Mike García is the only Republican-held congressional district to include parts of the city of Los Angeles. It is considered a majority-minority district, with Latinos comprising 30% and Asian Americans 38% of the population.

California political consultant Luis Alvarado adds another district to the mix: Congressional District 31 on the outskirts of Los Angeles and the one being vacated by retiring Rep. Grace Napolitano, who at 86 is the U.S. House’s oldest member and had served in the House since 1999. Even though the seat is expected to stay in Democratic Party hands, Alvarado says there’s an interesting twist.  

Luis Alvarado

While Napolitano has already endorsed state Sen. Bob Archuleta, “It’s a pretty conservative Latino district so we’re looking at who is going to be the most conservative of all of them,” adds Alvarado. Candidates already include a former Napolitano staffer and former Rep. Gil Cisneros.  Alvarado believes it’s still a bit early to see what kind of Latino outreach the candidates vying for Sen. Feinstein’s seat will be undertaken.

“I don’t think any of the three candidates have shown their hand yet on what their strategy is to connect with the Latino electorate. There are assumptions because of the region on the local level but that doesn’t carry on the state level. Everyone is trying to keep their powder dry, their campaign dollars, until it’s absolutely necessary. We’re going to find out a little bit more in January when they start enacting their strategy. It’s different now. If you would have asked me eight years ago, I would have answered no on them being aware of the Latino vote.”

Californian Julie Chávez Rodríguez is making history as the first Latina to run the reelection campaign of a sitting president, and would be making history if she stays on through the entire campaign (Hillary Clinton campaign manager Patty Solís Doyle was the first Latina to run a presidential campaign, but resigned after several primary losses), and that is incredibly important, says Rocha, particularly in this presidential campaign with persistent talk of a Biden campaign’s wishy-washy Latino outreach. 

“They know there’s a problem with Latino voters and this president, and I don’t think Julie Chávez is going to let them ignore it. More than a year before the general election, I think there’ll be plenty of resources if Julie Chávez is in charge, trying to make sure that Latinos show up. So many more Latinos coming of age because we are such a younger demographic, and Democrats didn’t spend any time explaining to younger Latinos why they are Democrats, and Republicans just ignored them. And now you have Republicans starting to spend money to talk to Latinos and you also have the Democratic Party spending more money than they ever have in Spanish to reach out to Latinos,” says Rocha. “In the last election cycle, the Senate Majority PAC spent more in Spanish than they had in the history of off-year elections, which shows you that they got a wakeup call after Trump got Latinos to vote eight points more Republican.” 

Nonetheless, while Rocha and others emphasize the importance of Latino strategists at the top of campaigns, Alvarado tells CALÓ NEWS that it doesn’t mean much if they’re not “known” and “out there.”

“If you gather 1,000 Latinos in California and ask them who’s the campaign person for Joe Biden, I’d be surprised if two can come up with her name. She hasn’t been prominent. Having a Latina campaign manager gives him the upperhand in understanding the electorate but it means nothing when you actually build a campaign plan, unless that person gets front and center. Everyone knew who George Stephanopoulos running the (Bill) Clinton campaign was or David Axelrod running the Obama campaign. You saw a team in action, you felt like you were part of the decision-making, you could watch the campaign grow. You don’t see that in the Biden campaign. You don’t see that you’re part of it; there’s no sense whatsoever.”

This may be the dog days of summer with November 2024 far in the distance, but that’s no excuse, adds Alvarado.

“People say it’s too early. It’s not too early. People are going to be voting in February; it’s not too early.

“I think when you allow other forces to define what your campaign is about, you’re making a mistake. Right now it’s a vacuum; everything you hear is about the Republicans. Even though it is bad news for Republicans, that’s the only story you’re hearing. There’s no sense of promoting the efforts of the administration as a success to be able to sell as a continuation of the administration. It’ll ramp up but right now it’s not there. Who is defining my message? There’s no effervescence to the campaign.”  

Kristian Ramos is a Democratic strategist in Washington, D.C., who says the problem right now is messaging to Latino voters.

“We (Democrats) put everything together, we fix things, but we don’t sell the accomplishments. Economic recovery has been remarkable, more jobs for Latinos, more small businesses for Latinos, better healthcare, college graduation rates are up. The country was hurting and things are better than they were before. But for whatever reason we haven’t seen people out touting it,” he tells CALÓ NEWS. “When we talk to Latinos in polling, focus groups, it’s almost like the last two years didn’t happen. They’re aware things are happening but they don’t associate them with Democrats and that is the problem. They (the Biden campaign) need to resolve that going forward – how do they tell the story of what’s happened over the last 2 ½ years in a way that resonates with the community. They do it in fits and starts and talk about it for a bit then something comes up and they don’t finish telling that story. They know they have to do it and have spent more money than previous administrations, but it’s not a sustained thing. They tend to jump from crisis to crisis to crisis. The stuff they have done is really popular with the community when they hear about it. Polling after the midterm showed that 22% of Latinos couldn’t name a single thing the Biden administration had done to help them. If you’re going to save the country, take credit for it. Offer solutions. That’s the challenge ahead. That’s what voters need to see.”

Kristian Ramos analyze latino voter

Ramos believes that it’ll start to really ramp up after August, particularly after the U.S. House and Senate return from their recess after Labor Day.
“The Democrats can’t win without maximizing Black and Latino turnout. I think they understand that they need to start earlier than in the past,” Ramos said. 

Rocha is a senior advisor for Arizona Rep. Rubén Gallego’s Senate run and who is currently leading in the polls. Arizona Latinos turned out in record numbers in 2022 and could turn out in even greater numbers in 2024. In addition to California and Arizona, Rocha says pay attention to other congressional districts with significant Latino population, such as in New Mexico and Colorado.

“The Latino vote is the most crucial and important electorate in America right now. And not just because they’re the fastest-growing population but also because it’s fastest-growing in the very specific places where the presidential and most of the Senate races and congressional races will be decided,” Rocha said.

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Raised in Puerto Rico, Patricia Guadalupe is a bilingual multimedia journalist based in Washington, D.C., covering the capital for both English and Spanish-language media outlets. She is also an adjunct...