Democrats are counting on a top California officeholder to help them flip Latino-heavy congressional districts in next year’s midterm elections: Sen. Alex Padilla.
Padilla, the state’s first Latino senator, is heavily favored as he enters his first election cycle since being tapped by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill Vice President Kamala Harris’ seat in late 2020. In response, Latino organizations are launching a concerted push to ensure a big Padilla victory margin — a win big enough to sweep in down-ballot Democrats on his coattails.
Nuestro PAC, a Democratic super PAC targeting Latino voters, is leading the effort with the kickoff of a statewide campaign to elect Padilla and flip five congressional districts, some of which Democrats lost by small margins in 2020.
Padilla will run in concurrent elections next year — a special election to finish the remainder of Harris‘ term through 2023 and a regular election for a full six-year term.
The plan is to leverage Padilla’s popularity — especially among Latinos — into stronger Latino turnout in the state, where they make up about 30 percent of the electorate. Part of the goal, Latino Democratic operatives and leaders say, is to deliver Democratic wins in districts with high populations of Latinos that have been overlooked by the party in the past.
“We want to use the momentum of Padilla being the first Latino senator to turn out new and young voters,” said Christopher Guerrero, vice president of California-based J&Z Strategies, who is working with Nuestro PAC on the effort. “We know turning them out will also trickle down and affect other tickets in the state — and Nuestro PAC is very keen on winning back the seats we lost in 2020.”
The effort will focus on seats currently held by Republican Reps. David Valadao, Mike Garcia, Young Kim, Michelle Steel and Darrell Issa. In three of those districts, a Republican ousted a Democratic incumbent. Earlier in 2020, Garcia flipped his district in a special election after the resignation of Democratic Rep. Katie Hill.
Guerrero, who served on Padilla’s transition team for the Senate, explained that most of the seats being targeted are in the Orange County and southeast Los Angeles County area, which has seen a major growth in Latino population “and not a lot of outreach to the community as new voters.”
“Latinos are such a sizable part of those districts that if we make a concerted effort to talk to them, we can turn them out and flip these districts blue,” said Eileen Garcia, executive director of Nuestro PAC.
The redistricting process in California — led by an independent citizens’ commission — is still ongoing, meaning the state will not have a final map for several months. The commission is set to release official draft maps on Nov. 10.
California is slated to lose one congressional seat for the first time in its history, shrinking the number of House seats from 53 to 52.
State and national Latino Democrats have long called on the Democratic Party to invest more in early outreach efforts — as opposed to in the final weeks of a campaign — to get Latinos out to vote. Those calls have been especially loud following the 2020 election, where Latinos across the country shifted incrementally toward Donald Trump.
Latino Democratic operatives view California as prime ground for those investments since Latino voters represent a sizable chunk of the electorate and lean younger in age.
In the recent gubernatorial recall election, an estimated 78 percent of Latinos voted no on the recall, according to an analysis by UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Initiative. In Southern California, Latino support for Newsom was upward of 75 percent, even in historically Republican places like Orange and Riverside counties. Only 40 percent of non-Latino voters voted no on the recall in Orange, and 45 percent of non-Latinos voted no in Riverside.
In Merced County, a majority-Latino county in the state’s Central Valley, 76 percent of Latinos voted no on the recall, compared to 15 percent of non-Latinos, according to the UCLA analysis.
Nuestro PAC, founded by Bernie Sanders campaign alum Chuck Rocha, is starting its campaign with digital ads and will later include direct mail and television spots in both English and Spanish.
Earlier this month, Latino Victory Fund announced it was endorsing Padilla, the son of working-class Mexican immigrants, for his first full term to the Senate. The progressive group noted that he has “already made his mark” in the Senate as a staunch supporter of voting rights, immigrant rights, health care access and working on Covid-19 recovery.
Padilla, California’s former secretary of state, has become a leading figure on Capitol Hill in pushing for the passage of voting rights legislation and inclusion of immigration reform via President Joe Biden’s sweeping social spending plan.
Some California Democrats argue that the party needs to commit to raise Padilla’s profile at the national level as part of its efforts to connect with Latino voters. Already, there are signs his value as a surrogate is being recognized: Padilla on Wednesday night campaigned in Northern Virginia for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.
“Sen. Padilla is going to be central in not only ensuring that Latino voters who were mobilized in the ‘21 recall election are going to be primed for the ‘22 midterms, but getting other voters across the country out, too,” said Sonja Diaz, founding director of UCLA’s Latino Politics and Policy Initiative.
“There’s a need for the Democratic Party to coalesce around Sen. Padilla’s future, ensuring he gets the relevant face-time and exposure to create a national donor base,” she added. “It’s essential to increase enthusiasm in the party.”