Georgia’s Latino voters draw big attention from U.S. Senate campaigns

Democrats focus appeals on COVID relief and immigration, while GOP stresses jobs and the economy

It was chilly, 48 degrees.

So Omar and Brittany Barahona wrapped their 4-month-old son Julian’s stroller in a heavy white blanket at a recent rally in Norcross to get Latino voters back to the polls on Jan. 5 for the twin senatorial runoffs.

They were among about 200 socially distanced Latino voters who danced and sang along with College Park rapper Kap G — whose parents emigrated to the United States in the 1980s from the Mexican state of Guerrero — in the middle of Lucky Shoals Park.

Several members of Omar Barahona’s family, including his grandmother, have been deported back to Honduras.

“This election is about Julian’s future, not mine,” he said as he watched Brittany, who is of Mexican descent, adjust the blanket. “As Latinos, we are such a small voice and underrepresented as a community. It is due time that we speak up.”

As the runoff election nears, both Democrats and Republicans are courting the roughly 250,000 Latino voters in Georgia.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are trying to get Latinos back to the polls by emphasizing COVID-19 relief and changes to immigration policy.

Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are ripping pages out of the playbook of President Donald Trump — who saw a 10-point bump this year among Georgia Latinos — by pointing out the significance of a strong economy and their opponents’ supposed embrace of socialism.

In what are expected to be tight races, Latinos could be the deciding factor, said Stephanie Lopez-Burgos, the Gwinnett County field director for the Working Families Party.

“We already saw it in November. You can feel how the energy is different,” Lopez-Burgos said. “And I see it every time I knock on doors and talk to voters. They are ready.”

But she said some candidates have not done enough to tap that power.

“I have been to places where no leaders have ever knocked on their doors,” Lopez-Burgos said. “But they are there, you just have to ask them. Every voice matters.”

In the November general election, while Democrat Joe Biden won Latino voters by a 2-to-1 margin nationwide, Trump made gains among Latinos in some states, including Georgia.

In Georgia, Trump got 37% of the Latino vote, compared with the 27% he received in 2016.

Nationally, Latinos are a broad group that encompasses a lot of ethnic and political diversity. Depending on who you ask and where, a top priority can be health care, immigration, the economy, education or racial justice.

Long ignored as a voting bloc, Latinos — who make up about 7% of Georgia’s electorate — are finding themselves at the forefront of who controls the Senate during the first two years of the Biden administration and are hoping to make a difference.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the nonprofit Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said Latino voter turnout in the state has outpaced national participation rates in every election since 2016. With millennials making up the bulk of Latino voters, Gonzalez doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

“Latino voters are engaged and turning out,” said Gonzalez, whose organization has already sent out four rounds of mailers for the runoff.

“Latinos care about the same things that most people care about,” Gonzalez said. “A response to COVID-19 and the economic fallout and impact of the virus. The hospital rates disproportionately impact Black and brown communities. That is at the top of our minds.”

Gonzalez said that Georgia’s agriculture, carpet and service industries “would collapse” without the labor of Latinos.

“We had some very painful rhetoric in the previous gubernatorial race, and we saw more of it during the presidential race,” Gonzalez said, referring to, among other things, a controversial ad by then-GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, where he said he drives “a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ‘em home myself.”

But there are some Latino voters, said Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, who skew conservative and are less interested in immigration and COVID-19 and care more about jobs and the economy.

For example, he has partnered with Mallory Quigley of the Susan B. Anthony List and Women Speak Out to canvass and develop digital ads focusing on issues opposing abortion.

“This shows that Georgians are sophisticated and are not one-issue voters,” Aguilar said. “The economic prosperity message and the defense-of-life message really resonate.”

Cathy Genty, a Puerto Rican business owner, says the “biggest things people want to know about in my community are the economy and jobs.”

“We are concerned about where it is going to go next,” Genty said. “Small-business owners are looking at Perdue and Loeffler, who have proven records with the economy. (We) need to be able to have a firewall.”

The Republicans are also equating Warnock and Ossoff with socialism in a message that has resonated with some Latino voters. It worked in Florida, where the state’s overwhelming Cuban and Venezuelan Latino populations supported Trump.

“I believe that some of the ideas that are being presented by Warnock and Ossoff are similar to the socialist agenda that we see in Venezuela, like free health care,” said Genty, who has been married to a Venezuelan man for 26 years. “We don’t need that here.”

Gonzalez said while there are Latinos in Georgia who are conservative, he doesn’t think that overall they would ever vote Republican.

If two states could serve as a litmus test in how diverse Latino voters are, they would be Arizona and Florida, two key swing states.

In Arizona, where a large number of Latinos are Mexican-American and issues such as racial profiling, immigration raids and deportations were top of mind, 63% of their votes went to Biden and 36% to Trump, according to exit polls.

In Florida, Trump won the state in part by appealing to the more than 2 million Latino voters in Miami-Dade County with his tough stance on socialist Latin American regimes and his repeated claims that Biden, if elected, would advance the radical socialist policies they fled.

“We are more like Arizona than Florida,” Gonzalez said. “You can’t equate what happened in Florida with what is happening on the ground in Georgia.”

It was no accident that the recent “Joy to the Polls” rally ― sponsored by Mijente and The Georgia Latino Alliance For Human Rights Action Network, two grassroots civil and human rights organizations ― was held in Lucky Shoals Park in Norcross.

Gwinnett and Cobb counties, both of which swung to Democrats in 2016, are hotbeds for Latino voters.

Between speakers, all of whom peppered their Spanish speeches with English and vice versa, the band La Original Banda El Limon, with each musician dressed in green, kept the crowd moving.

“Latino voters are overlooked and not understood,” said Tania Unzueta, political director of Mijente, adding that 200 paid canvassers are going to knock on 300,000 doors. “This is an opportunity for Latino voters to show up in a bigger way. We have seen how close the elections are in Georgia. So I think this population can help push one way or the other.”

Between the band and rappers, the actresses America Ferrera, Eva Longoria and Kate del Castillo took turns speaking to the crowd.

Longoria reminded them to “find their strength and their power every day.”

“And when elections come around, this is a perfect opportunity to use that power, especially as Latinos,” she said. “Latinos have an immense amount of power, and once we realize that and use it at the ballot box, we can really change policies for our communities.”

Jordan Gaeta, a 32-year-old resident of Lawrenceville, nodded his head.

“People in our community are getting left behind,” said Gaeta, whose family is from Mexico. “Latinos will for sure come out and make a difference in the polls. We saw in November where we turned Georgia blue. We will continue to do that and engage the party and our representatives to make sure that our voices are heard. Our voices have not been heard in such a long time, and we know that.”