Dismantling the ‘Latino Republican Voter’ Myth—With Voto Latino’s María Teresa Kumar

Voto Latino president and CEO María Teresa Kumar speaks during the Women’s March ‘Power to the Polls’ voter registration tour on Jan. 21, 2018, in Las Vegas. Voto Latino is a grassroots political organization focused on educating and empowering a new generation of Latinx voters. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

In today’s elections, races are increasingly coming down to the margins. (In Colorado, Rep. Lauren Boebert may squeak into reelection by just 600 votes.) These narrow margins of victory make every get-out-the-vote effort more urgent.

In the last several years, a popular narrative has emerged: The rise of right-wing extremism has been fueled by a surge in Latino support. María Teresa Kumar, head of Voto Latino, says this is simply untrue. 

As the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group in the U.S. electorate, Latinos hold an incredible amount of political power.

I spoke to Kumar last week to try to understand the proliferation of the ‘Latino Republican voter’ myth. As the head of an organization focusing almost exclusively on engaging young Latino youth in the U.S. political process, she helped me make sense of the election aftermath, the messages she thinks Latino voters sent through the way they voted, and why it’s time for progressives to double-down on Texas.

This interview has been edited and excerpted for clarity and length.

Roxy Szal: So much for the red tsunami! I know you and Voto Latino writ large were sounding the alarm about the salience of abortion rights and the impact it would have on the midterms. How do you feel about the coverage in the days leading up to the election, compared to now? Is there a little bit of ‘I told you so’ there? 

María Teresa Kumar: Going into the election, we were very clear-eyed. We were trying to tell people about the [importance of] mobilization.

If you recall, the last three weeks before the election, there was a real strategy of trying to tell people that Dr. Oz was up in Pennsylvania, and that Republican candidates were doing better than they actually were.

I’m disappointed in the coverage leading up to it. I think that people missed the story, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. That story was: If young Latinos and low-propensity voters in Arizona and Nevada don’t come out, it’s not going to be friendly for the Democrats.

Post the election, again, I’m waiting for the headline saying, ‘Latinos help safeguard democracy.’ It wasn’t just us, but we were a very big component of that, both in Arizona and in Nevada.

I have yet to see any publications scream, ‘Latino voters won Arizona and Nevada’—and I’m waiting for that, because that is the honest truth.

Szal: What was Voto Latino’s strategy this election? What role do you think y’all played?

Kumar: We like to remind folks that 61 percent of Latinos who voted for Biden in 2020, were first-time voters or low-propensity voters—so one of the reasons that we were trying to sound the alarm in Arizona and Nevada, was that low-propensity voters were not getting contacted with this election. So we ended up focusing our whole [get-out-the-vote] strategy in Nevada and Arizona. 

It was a risky bet. Everybody else was saying, ‘We’ll focus on Pennsylvania and Georgia,’ but we just saw in Pennsylvania and Georgia, that work was getting done, but no one was contacting low-propensity voters. Just in Arizona alone, we ended up contacting over 300,000 low-propensity voters the last two weeks of the election. 

In fact, 48 hours before the election, my team and our volunteers sent over 152,000 text messages to these folks. The reason we did that was because we learned seven days out that 42 percent of Latinos in Arizona, who were registered voters, had not received a call yet from anybody—and that’s because they’re low-propensity.

The parties normally just focus on their base, not realizing that BIPOC communities and young voters *are* the progressive base. They will always be low-propensity voters because they’re just starting their own vote history.

In the end, it was Nevada and Arizona that guaranteed a progressive Democratic Senate.

The reason that we’re good at what we do is we represent the community we serve, and we talk to our community all the time. We’re really good at convincing a young person, who at the same time is cynical because the system doesn’t really work for them. We convince them to give it a shot.

To give you an idea, in a place like Arizona, we registered 32,000 folks and turned them out [in 2020]. Of those 32,000 that we registered and turned out, 19,000 of them were first-time voters. Biden won that state by 12,000 votes.

The majority of the progressive base is under the age of 29 now. It’s really trying to reimagine what the progressive base really is—and it is BIPOC and young women disproportionately.

The biggest takeaway: Don’t take any voter for granted just because they don’t seem to have a long voting history. That’s what we’re doing now in Georgia.

Szal: If Democrats win an additional Senate seat in Georgia runoffs, what will that mean for the Senate? What would you tell voters about why this race matters?

Kumar: It breaks the fever of depending on Sinema and Manchin, and it takes away their power. 

Also, we’re able to finish the job. Clearly the reason that folks voted in record numbers [this election] was because they felt their vote worked in 2020. And there’s still work that needs to be done. We’re not finished yet.

We still have to make sure that we are lifting all votes and that the government is working for the majority of Americans, not a few. By sending another representative from Georgia to the Senate, it allows the progressives and the Democrats to finish the agenda to help close that inequality that our country still is suffering from.

Szal: What does the media get wrong in stories about Latino voters and potential voters?

Kumar: It felt like every single publication was screaming, ‘Latino voters are defecting Republican.’ I have yet to see any publications scream, ‘Latino voters won Arizona and Nevada’—and I’m waiting for that, because that is the honest truth.

We’re very data-driven at Voto Latino. People were trying to claim that Latinos were breaking Republican, which is not what we had seen. But it had a real chilling effect because people didn’t want to fund progressive efforts in the Latino community.

Latinos really care about abortion. It’s the number two issue. 

So little folks in the newsrooms are of Latino descent that are outside of Florida. It’s easy for people to internalize their own biases and say, ‘Oh, no, but Latinos are Catholic.’ And I’m like, ‘We are, but we are Pope Francis Catholics.’

If you look at where Beto O’Rourke won, it’s [most of the south of Texas], the Rio Grande Valley. But reporters kept burying the lead because they wanted to believe it was true that Latinos were defecting—and that, I think, speaks more to the reporting class and their biases than the actual state of Latinos in the United States.

Just between 2020 and 2024, there’s going to be over 600,000 more Latino youth eligible to vote in Texas. That is the margin Beto lost by.

Szal: We have a lot of readers in Texas, and many more that are interested in making sense of what’s going on here in the Lone Star State.

What do you say when people ask you, ‘What happened in Texas?’ or ‘What happened with Beto?’

Kumar: Texas is the whole kit and caboodle for the progressive movement, and for the heart of America—and I don’t say that lightly.

Democrats consistently say that it’s too hard [to turn Texas blue], but it’s because we need a massive voter registration effort at-scale. There’s more young people and more young people of color in that state, waiting for opportunities for mobilization, than in any other.

The party has internalized the myth of Texas, because that’s what the Republicans want people to really believe. We registered more voters in Texas than any other organization, and not by a little, but by a significant amount. That’s because we have a commitment to Texas, and a commitment to the voters of Texas. When they participate, they do turn out.

I think Beto [O’Rourke] was a strong candidate, but he did too many things, too soon. What he did do was say, ‘Look, I am an extremely liberal guy in a state like Texas, and I didn’t lose by more than what Biden lost by.’ 

Republicans and Independent and moderate voters of Texas have to ask themselves: Why is the GOP in Texas creating rules to prevent young people’s voice, instead of competing for our vote? 

There’s a lot of bright spots. We’re sending someone like Greg Casar to Congress—who’s very liberal from Austin—and we’re seeing someone like Lina Hidalgo [get reelected as a Harris County judge].

If you take Texas, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter what happens anywhere else, for a progressive agenda. I’m just speaking plainly.

There’s a reason why we have for the last 12 years invested in Texas. Just between 2020 and 2024, there’s going to be over 600,000 more Latino youth eligible to vote in Texas. That is the margin that Beto lost by.

I think in 2024, it’s a completely different map, because it allows us to start working with them now. And at Voto Latino, we will.

Up next:

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Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.