RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's become a stereotype of political forecasting to say Latinos could be a powerful voting bloc. This year, they did turn out in large numbers at the polls in key races. NPR's Joel Rose has been looking at what this could mean for the future.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In Texas, turnout rose dramatically in heavily Latino precincts, from the Rio Grande Valley to big cities, like El Paso and San Antonio. College student Chelsea Linares voted for the first time in Houston. Her parents immigrated to Texas from Honduras before she was born.
CHELSEA LINARES: All the emotions hit in. I just started thinking about my family, my friends - to be able to give a voice to my dad that can't vote, my mother that can't vote, all the young people that wish that they could, but they can't.
ROSE: A record 29 million Latinos were eligible to vote in this year's election. We don't know how many did cast ballots until the official tallies are complete, but preliminary data suggests there was a big jump in Latino participation. According to exit polls, 1 in 4 Latino voters cast a ballot in a midterm for the first time. And Latino turnout more than doubled in competitive districts compared to 2014, according to early voting data analyzed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The group's chairman, Congressman Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, says the DCCC spent more money on Spanish-language campaign ads and started reaching out to Latino voters more than a year ago.
BEN RAY LUJAN: Latinos showed up to the polls because we talked to them, we listened to them. Our candidates connected with their personal stories. We knocked on their doors. We reached out online.
ROSE: Latinos are a fast-growing demographic that has long been coveted by candidates and strategists in both parties. This time, Democrats think President Trump gave them the edge. And Matt Barreto agrees. He's a professor at UCLA and co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions. Barreto says three-quarters of the Latino voters he surveyed say Trump uses toxic rhetoric to divide the country.
MATT BARRETO: They were also tired of the discussion of immigrants in such a negative and racist rhetoric, and this was a very strong mobilizing issue in the Latino community.
ROSE: By focusing heavily on immigration instead of the economy, the GOP missed an opportunity to attract Latino voters. That's according to Daniel Garza, the president of The LIBRE Initiative, a conservative nonprofit group that tries to engage Hispanic voters. But Garza also pointed to GOP successes, especially in Florida, which has a large Cuban-American population that tends to vote Republican. At a panel organized by the Aspen Institute and UCLA, Garza said many Republican candidates have done a good job of reaching out to Latino communities.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DANIEL GARZA: That's good for us. That's really good for Latinos to be engaged by both sides 'cause you have to earn our vote like you earn everybody else's.
ROSE: But in most places, exit polls show Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. Janet Murguia is the president of UnidosUS, a nonpartisan group that registered tens of thousands of Latinos to vote. She says the Latino vote helped Democrats flip Republican-held Senate seats in Arizona and in Nevada.
JANET MURGUIA: There's no question that Nevada is the gold standard for getting out and mobilizing the Latino electorate.
ROSE: With this election, Democrats in Nevada captured nearly every statewide office. They did that in part by building a ground game that courts Latino voters year-round, even when there's no election on the calendar.
DORA OLIVIA ARIZMENDI: I have to be example for my community, for my co-workers.
ROSE: Dora Olivia Arizmendi voted in a midterm election for the first time in Nevada. She's a housekeeper at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and a member of the Culinary Workers Union, which is more than half Latino. Arizmendi took time off from her job to help register fellow union members and get them to the polls.
ARIZMENDI: That was in 110 degrees knocking doors. And now I can see the differences. I'm proud of that, and I feel happy.
ROSE: The midterm results in Nevada and elsewhere are raising expectations for 2020 that Latinos might finally be the voting bloc that decides a presidential election. Joel Rose, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.