‘We have woken up’: Georgia GOP looks to make inroads with Hispanic electorate

Republicans hope to challenge the notion that the state’s growing diversity is good news for Democrats only.
Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, front left, and his wife, Julie Blanchard, center, leave Mojitos in Norcross after campaigning there in September. Republicans see an opportunity to make gains with Hispanic voters and have stepped up their outreach efforts. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, front left, and his wife, Julie Blanchard, center, leave Mojitos in Norcross after campaigning there in September. Republicans see an opportunity to make gains with Hispanic voters and have stepped up their outreach efforts. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

For a moment in late September, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker’s attention was on Mojitos — a Cuban restaurant in Gwinnett County packed with dozens of supporters, many Hispanic.

As the sound of Walker’s stump speech gave way to blaring salsa music, Cuban immigrants and longtime Atlanta residents Marilu and Fredy Alvarez were buzzing. The couple’s conservative views had historically made them a minority within Atlanta’s Hispanic community. But now, Marilu Alvarez said more people close to them are “hurting financially ... they are looking at the way things are now, and they are not liking what they are seeing.”

“For us, it’s incredible, that a politician at the statewide level has come to a Hispanic, Cuban restaurant to look for our vote,” Fredy Alvarez told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in Spanish. “Before, no one would come.”

Mindful of reports of economic anxiety among Hispanics — and buoyed by signs from across the country that the Hispanic electorate may be increasingly open to their views — Republicans are displaying an unprecedented level of interest in Latino voter outreach. In Georgia, they hope to chip away at the multiracial coalition that helped flip the state in Democrats’ favor in 2020.

“I think (Hispanic voters) are realizing that they are more like Republicans than they are Democrats. … We’re very encouraged by it,” Gwinnett County GOP Chairman Sammy Baker said. “I don’t think enough outreach was done, and I think we have woken up to that.”

In 2020, then-President Donald Trump outperformed his 2016 showing by 10 percentage points among Georgia Latinos, even as they supported Joe Biden by a 2-to-1 margin and proved instrumental in giving Democrats key statewide wins.

Recent polls indicate that Republicans are faring better with Latinos, particularly in the southern U.S.

To be sure, Georgia Republicans face an uphill battle in garnering support, as they lack the sophisticated operation Democrats have built to mobilize voters of color.

But simply making any gains with Hispanic voters could be enough to block Democrats’ path to Georgia victories, said Bernard Fraga, an Emory University political science professor.

“The Republican outreach efforts understand that their success will not be measured in whether or not they get a majority of Latino voters,” Fraga said. “It will be if they win the election, and Latino voters could be a part of that.”

Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker campaigns in September at Mojitos, a Cuban restaurant in Norcross. “For us, it’s incredible, that (an aspiring) politician at the statewide level has come to a Hispanic, Cuban restaurant to look for our vote,” Fredy Alvarez told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in Spanish. “Before, no one would come.” (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Jerry Gonzalez, head of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and the GALEO Impact Fund, said additional GOP gains with Hispanics in 2022 could be less likely in Georgia than in other parts of the country. He notes that the much-discussed “rightward shift” in 2020 was especially pronounced in “pockets of the Latino electorate,” most notably in Texas and South Florida.

In Georgia, “overwhelmingly the Latino community went for Biden, overwhelmingly Latino voters played a decisive role in a Democratically controlled U.S. Senate,” he said.

‘A generational turning point’

Republicans are hinging their 2022 improvements with the Latino electorate on increased outreach efforts and colorblind messaging campaigns that paint the GOP as the party of economic opportunity.

Many are encouraged by a perceived overlap between the Hispanic community and the GOP’s values, said state Sen. Jason Anavitarte, the sole Latino Republican in the Statehouse. Widespread respect for self-reliance among Latinos, the thinking goes, aligns well with Republicans’ business-friendly policies and their support for lower taxes and limited government.

“The steady rise that we’ve seen with the Hispanic electorate with Republicans has just continued to grow and grow — I think we’re almost at a generational turning point where Hispanics believe that Republicans have their best interests at heart,” Anavitarte said.

To boost their chances, the Republican National Committee opened Georgia’s first Hispanic community center in Suwanee over the summer to facilitate grassroots connections between GOP campaigns and Latino communities. For Maria Verde, a Gwinnett resident and a Venezuelan immigrant, visiting the center felt like a political homecoming.

“Being here, it’s like, wow, there’s hope,” she told the AJC in June. “There’s people that think like me.”

On hand at the RNC center’s opening was Mexican native John King, the Republican insurance commissioner who is hoping to become in 2022 Georgia’s first Hispanic person elected to statewide office (he was appointed to his job, which he is now running to keep, back in 2019).

Baker said Spanish-speaking RNC staffers have teamed up with the Gwinnett GOP to knock on doors. The party has also created Spanish-language pamphlets and produced a video ad for Hispanic Heritage Month. (“Hispanics don’t come to the U.S. to support socialism. … They come in search of the American dream,” a narrator says in Spanish).

Republican efforts that directly target Latino voters may see initial success, Fraga said, because there is a significant number of unregistered voters among Georgia Latinos that may not have seen outreach until now.

“In the Latino community, in particular, there’s a large amount of new voters waiting to be activated,” he said.

‘The message is the same for everyone’

Lawrenceville-based broadcaster Juan Eliel Garcia, who is originally from Puerto Rico, disseminates right-wing commentary on local Spanish-language radio, during TV hits on Univision and through social media. He attributes Republican gains under Trump in part to the clarity of his message.

“For years, they put us Latinos in a separate box. … Today, that’s not the case,” Garcia said. “Today, the message is the same for everyone — country, economy, family, safety — and Latinos feel identified by that.”

Speaking to Latinos as if they were average voters — as opposed to a racialized minority — could be an especially good fit for an election cycle dominated by pocketbook issues that do not discriminate along ethnic or racial lines, Republicans hope. Many Hispanic voters have cited economic concerns as their top issue, something the GOP has frequently addressed in its messaging.

Latino voters’ chances of being put off by inflammatory rhetoric around immigration are likely smaller now, too. During Gov. Brian Kemp’s first run in 2018, he made national news by vowing in an ad to “round up criminal illegals.”

The absence of such stunts in 2022, Garcia said, doesn’t signal a change in Kemp’s views on immigration. He thinks it’s simply “political maturity.” Baker, however, hopes that will make Republicans more palatable to Georgia Latinos.

“Even someone who’s been here for 30 years probably doesn’t like (hearing) ‘Illegal, illegal, illegal, illegal’ because maybe at one time when their parents came over, they might have been illegal at some point,” Baker said. “I think we’re growing up on that. The rhetoric needs to die down.”

Despite those shifts, Gonzalez is skeptical that Georgia’s GOP leadership has sufficiently distanced itself from rhetoric offensive to Latinos. He pointed out that Kemp is among those engaging in talks of “invasion” at the southern border — language viewed by some as problematic.

“The GOP needs to reject that if they want to reach out to Latinos,” he said.

Democratic advantages

Despite the GOP’s limited progress, Democrats still hold significant advantages in Georgia.

Latinos in the state remain a comparatively young, majority-Mexican population, characteristics favorable to Democrats. They also tend to consist of newer immigrants, which could make them wary of the GOP’s association with harsh immigration policy.

Georgia Democrats also benefit from a more developed, multicultural network, something the state’s Republicans are still developing.

Stacey Abrams’ campaign for governor, for example, has aired several ads on Spanish-language media platforms, developed a Latino-focused agenda, and participated in a number of events for Hispanic Heritage Month. Unlike her opponent, Abrams has a Spanish-language version of her campaign website.

As someone involved in Spanish-language media, Garcia said it hurts his heart to see Democratic ads dominate those spaces with little pushback from Republicans.

“They still haven’t understood the importance of maintaining the message in front of people,” he said. “Right now people are realizing that Hispanics are transforming … which is great, but the language barrier is still there.”

Republican prospects are also limited, Fraga said, in that Democrats have already persuaded Latino voters amenable to their platform and can now invest in harder-to-convince voters. Because GOP operations are just picking up steam, they are lagging behind in that process.

That novelty was on full display in July 2021 when, during a state GOP-organized rally in Sandy Springs to show solidarity with the Cuban people, conservative politicians were shouted down for focusing on U.S. politics rather than complaints against the Cuban regime.

A lack of bilingual staff and volunteers also continues to be a problem, said Baker, the Gwinnett GOP chairman. But with time and a more nuanced approach, Republicans like him remain hopeful that the current political environment could yield further erosion in Democratic Latino support.

“If we want America to do well and we want America to grow in more of a conservative way, the Hispanic community is really right there with us,” Baker said. “We just have to learn how to communicate with them, engage with them more, and I think we’re on the right track.”