Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Hispanic oasis in ruby-red Ga., and the Latino vote

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Georgia congresswoman says Latinos are ‘flocking’ to the GOP, but she may be helping to keep them away

For Zeucis Martinez, life in northwest Georgia has meant straddling two different majorities.

A Venezuelan immigrant who settled in Dalton in the 1980s, Martinez feels at home among the Latin American diaspora that transformed the “carpet capital of the world” into Georgia’s largest majority-Hispanic town, with 51% of residents identifying as Latino for the 2020 U.S. Census.

Martinez is also Republican, and part of the electorate that two years ago helped President Donald Trump win with 70% of the vote in Whitfield County, where Dalton sits in far northwest Georgia.

Those aspects of Martinez’s identity have put him on the frontlines of Georgia Republicans’ incipient efforts to court Latino voters — a strategy meant to chip away at the diverse coalition that helped Democrats flip the state in the last election cycle. “Republicans see me as an ambassador for them” in the Hispanic community, Martinez said.

In one of his last trips as president, Trump traveled to Dalton for a rally, where he characterized the gains he made with Hispanic voters in 2020 as “historic.” But continuing to expand GOP support among Latinos in Georgia will be a tough hill to climb — such are the advantages Democrats have built over years of targeted outreach and bilingual media placements. In Dalton, that hill may well be a mountain range. Decades of intense immigration enforcement in that Republican-run part of the state are a factor.

Adding to that challenge is the spotlight commanded by U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, the local GOP congresswoman who has introduced legislation to halt all immigration, and who recently referenced the “great replacement” — a conspiracy theory alleging that elites are importing immigrants to replace white people.

Her Democratic opponent, the prodigious fundraiser Marcus Flowers, has warned that Greene’s immigration rhetoric is “designed to endanger lives.”

Credit: Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton /

With Dalton being Georgia’s largest majority-Hispanic city, both political parties have worked to court their vote. Latinos now account for 4% of the overall Georgia electorate, but in Whitfield County, they make up 17%, a state high.

Voters don’t register by political party in Georgia, but Hispanic voters generally favor Democratic candidates, and their numbers, while small, are large enough to matter in the state’s close races. As of Oct. 19, there were 305,100 registered Hispanic voters in Georgia — a number more than 25 times President Biden’s 2020 margin of victory.

Despite Trump notching a 10-point gain with the Georgia Hispanic electorate in 2020 relative to 2016, Latino voters still backed Biden by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.

“If we can get across what the issues are and where the party stands on those issues, we definitely have more to offer for the Hispanic community,” said Debby Peppers, chair of the Whitfield County Democratic Committee.

Greene’s rising influence in the Republican party could complicate the Georgia GOP’s effort to diversify their constituency.

“You can make the case that her actions are going in the opposite direction of where the Republican leadership may want to go,” said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.

Bullock said Republican leaders are recognizing the state’s changing demographics and the need to diversify the party. “But there’s perhaps an internal conflict between what party headquarters in Atlanta is seeing as being the long-term benefit of the Republican Party and what Marjorie Taylor Greene may see as her personal benefit,” he said.

‘Everything we work on goes out the window’

In September, Martinez was on hand for what he said was the Whitfield County Republican Party’s first participation in Dalton’s annual Mexican Independence Day parade. Photos show him posing next to party leadership with a sign in Spanish that reads: ‘Vota Republicano, Es Nuestro Futuro’ (Vote Republican, It’s our future).

When parade-goers asked him why he supported Republicans, Martinez explained that, in his view, Hispanic values are conservative values.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

In Martinez’s telling, his pitch in favor of the GOP is one Latinos around him are now more receptive to, especially given the significant toll rising inflation is taking on the Hispanic community. It’s a departure from 2016, when Martinez recalls being shunned and losing business for supporting Trump.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

With a figure as controversial as Greene now becoming the face of the GOP in northwest Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, Martinez is wary of a return to that difficult past if Republicans aren’t united in welcoming Latinos to their party.

“Someone like me can put their hand in the fire [to build Hispanic support for the GOP]. But if she comes here with that platform, everything that we work on goes out the window.”

Greene’s policy goals include ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shields undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. The immigration bill she introduced last year also calls for a complete immigration moratorium — a more extreme stance on the issue than those of Georgia Republicans who are running in statewide races.

For Bullock, Greene’s lack of overtures to her Latino constituents reflects her district’s overall demographics. Hispanics may be the largest minority in Georgia’s 14th, but they still make up only about 13% of the district’s population. She can ignore them and safely keep her seat.

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

But at least in theory, Greene still seems open to the idea that Hispanic voters can be brought into the GOP fold.

“Hispanics are flocking to the Republican Party … Hispanics are conservative. [They] are predominantly Christian,” she said in response to a question during a livestreamed Whitfield County Republican Party meeting earlier this month, where she addressed a packed house of supporters.

Putting in the work to engage Latino voters was something Greene said she was open to exploring.

“We need to do better outreach. We need to be doing ads in Spanish. We need to be sending mail in Spanish ... We need to be going in person to the community leaders there and I would love to do that,” she said.

In Dalton, immigration looms large

Earlier in October, a large and lively food festival was held in downtown Dalton in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Alongside food vendors and a stage that featured mariachi acts and Andean music groups, there was a voting registration booth. Over a loudspeaker, an announcer encouraged attendees in Spanish to swing by.

“Our vote is our voice. … Sometimes we let candidates who come after us win because we don’t get involved.”

America Gruner founded the Coalición De Líderes Latinos (CLILA), the Hispanic-serving nonprofit that organized the food festival and plans to carry Latino voters to the polls during early voting.

She says her organization started registering voters in 2006, in response to an uptick in anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies across the country and in Whitfield County, which remains one of just five Georgia jurisdictions that deputizes local law enforcement to act as immigration agents.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Because Latinos in the area are mostly first- or second-generation immigrants, they are sensitive to the kind of restrictive policies Greene advocates for.

“Immigration is what most interests people here,” Gruner said. “They see a direct impact [on their lives].”

Joshua Perea Ocampo is a sophomore at Dalton State College and a first-time voter. He was born in Georgia, but immigration remains his top priority: Perea Ocampo’s mother, originally from Mexico, is a DACA-recipient. Acceptance into the program led to a work permit and a driver’s license, making it possible for her to get on the road without fear of getting detained or deported.

“It has affected her life tremendously,” he said.

Perea Ocampo will cast a vote against Greene this fall.

Credit: Miguel Martinez / AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez / AJC