AURORA — Victoria De La Fuente stands outside of a driver’s license office in Aurora, holding a clipboard and greeting people as they exit and prodding them to register to vote
As a representative of Mi Familia Vota, a national nonprofit that encourages Latinos and immigrants in seven states, including Colorado, to get involved in civic life, she spends five mornings a week here or at schools and festivals trying to make sure as many people as possible can cast a ballot on Nov. 8, Election Day.
People are supposed to automatically be registered to vote in Colorado when they receive their driver’s license, but De La Fuente says that doesn’t always happen when a facility is busy.
“Morning,” she says to a man leaving the office. “Have you registered for the elections?”
“What elections?” he asked.
Colorado candidates and political groups on both sides of the political spectrum are focused on Latino voters in 2022, hoping their support can be a difference maker on Tuesday. That’s especially true in the state’s highly competitive, new 8th Congressional District, where 39% of the population is Latino, the largest share of any congressional district in the state. That contest is attracting millions of dollars in outside spending, much of it from Republicans who hope to sway Latinos to their side over economic issues. Democrats believe they can attract Latinos over social issues, like firearm regulations and abortion.
While there’s a battle for the Latino vote in Colorado every election cycle, the 8th District race appears to have heightened the urgency for both Democrats and Republicans. National observers believe the 8th District is a political laboratory for reaching Latino voters whose results could try to be replicated across the country.
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But Latino voters are important to every major campaign in the state in 2022 as they now make up nearly a quarter of Colorado’s population.
Candidates are advertising on Spanish-language TV and radio and in Spanish-language print publications. Political parties and outside groups are registering Latino voters and knocking on their doors. And national organizations are polling Latino voters in Colorado on the issues that matter most to them.
Some efforts appear to be energizing Latinos to cast ballots.
“The early vote numbers actually look good,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a University of New Mexico political scientist and pollster. “They’re in some cases outpacing 2018 turnout for Latinos, which was really, really high.”
But there have also been misinformation efforts targeting Colorado’s Latino electorate. In recent weeks, Latino voters have been hearing anti-transgender Spanish-language radio ads and receiving mailers falsely saying that President Joe Biden and his liberal allies “are pushing radical and irreversible gender experiments on children,” like blocking puberty and removing genitalia.
Democrats fear that messaging from a nonprofit operated by Stephen Miller, a top adviser to former President Donald Trump known for his anti-immigrant views, is aimed at keeping Latinos from going to the polls.
“This is a tactic meant to divide and disgust voters, to opt out of participating in this election all together,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzalez, a Denver Democrat who talked with many constituents who received the anti-transgender mailers.
Latinos are the focus in the 8th Congressional District
Colorado Republicans gathered at a bank-turned-campaign office in Thornton the last day of August to christen the space as a Republican National Committee Hispanic Community Center. The GOP is hoping to sway Latino voters who tend to vote for Democrats — or not at all.
Republican National Committeewoman Vera Ortegon, of Pueblo, began the event with a prayer, asking for the protection of GOP candidates.
“We hope that it is your wish that they will be winners in November,” she said. “Be our guidance to ensure that we never offend you. Give us the strength to protect the unborn.”
The kickoff event in Adams County near the Weld County border featured state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, the GOP candidate in the new 8th Congressional District. It runs from the Denver suburbs in Adams County north to Greeley. The GOP campaign office in Thornton is in the political heart of the district.
The district is rated a toss-up or leaning toward Republicans in national rankings, and outside spent more than $16.3 million trying to influence general election voters through Nov. 3. Much of that is going to TV advertising, but some is also going to canvassing voters.
Kirkmeyer, who before being elected to the state Senate was a longtime Weld County commissioner, recounted the history of Fort Lupton.
“Fort Lupton was built in 1836 by Mexicans,” she said. “They came here to settle and work with fur traders and settle this country. They were the first settlement in Weld County.
“I will take heed to the great lessons from this Hispanic heritage,” she continued. “Those lessons of devotion to family and their home, of a commitment to church and Christian faith, and a deep, strong loyalty to their community.”
Her Democratic opponent, state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, is the child of Mexican immigrants and the first in her family to graduate from college. She received a medical degree from the University of Colorado and worked as a pediatrician, then ran for the state House in 2018. If she wins on Election Day she will be the first Latino congresswoman from Colorado.
In October, Caraveo met with voters at a Mexican restaurant in Westminster. The event was sponsored by Mi Familia Vota.
“What are you looking for in a congressperson?” Caraveo asked.
“Really ensuring that the voices of Latinos are heard,” a man told her across a table covered in plates of churros. “We’ve known that Latinos are being displaced by the housing crisis that we have in our state.”
She answered questions in Spanish, explaining that she has a cousin who is temporarily protected from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
“We have to reform the entire (immigration) system,” she said. “It’s been decades where we’ve just been talking, talking, talking.”
Registering voters, knocking on doors
At the Aurora driver’s license office last month, the response to De La Fuente’s voter registration efforts was mixed. She said some refused because they aren’t citizens and know they can’t vote. The man who asked when the election is turned her down, saying, “I’m not ready.”
But Eder Ramirez, who moved to Aurora from the small Eastern Plains town of Wray, agreed to register.
“I feel like everything’s going a little downhill here lately,” he said. “I haven’t voted before. I feel like I need to step up and do my part.”
These days, De La Fuente is making phone calls to voters, urging them to return their ballots. Mi Famila Vota workers are running a phone bank, texting voters and canvassing, with a volunteer event Saturday in Commerce City.
“So far the majority of them have voted,” she said. “The ones who haven’t voted … they don’t exactly know who they’re voting for. They’re undecided.”
But her group is just one of several trying to encourage Latinos to vote.
One of the most active in the 8th Congressional District is Libre Initiative Action, part of the free market Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative group founded by the billionaire Koch brothers of Wichita, Kansas.
Since the start of the year, Libre Initiative Action and Americans for Prosperity Action reported spending nearly $1 million to support Kirkmeyer in the primary and general elections. Much of that money went to door-to-door canvassing, but also to mailers and digital advertising.
Angel Merlos leads a team of five people working on the 8th District for Libre Initiative Action.
“That’s the only race here in the state that we’re involved in, just because of the voters there and the impact that we believe we can have there, having those conversations with voters,” Merlos said.
The group is supporting Kirkmeyer, Merlos said, because “we believe with her track record, she has provided solutions that matter to the community.”
He said that includes solutions to inflation and economic issues that Libre Initiative Action workers hear about knocking on doors, as well as immigration solutions that address both border security, the need for immigrant workers and a path to citizenship for people brought here illegally as children.
Inflation and the economy concern Latino voters
Plenty of pollsters are quizzing Latino voters in 2022, including Sanchez, the University of New Mexico political scientist who is also a partner in BSP Research. That group conducted a survey of 1,504 Colorado Latino voters in July and early August on behalf of several Latino groups.
Latinos are most concerned about economic issues, according to the poll, with half of those surveyed saying their financial situation is worse than a year ago.
Sanchez said the poll found some distinct differences in the 8th District, where “economic challenges are even a little bit higher.”
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The poll revealed that the 8th District had the highest projected voter turnout among Latinos of all the state’s congressional districts, at 74%. Nearly half of Latinos in the 8th District agreed that the Second Amendment guarantees firearm ownership without restrictions, compared with 42% statewide. But 84% in the 8th District also agreed that firearms sales should be recorded and reported and 79% agreed that state laws on gun sales should be stricter.
Nationally, Sanchez is seeing an advantage for Republicans, who are trying to woo Latino voters on economic grounds.
“Latinos are supporting Republicans to a higher extent than they have in the last couple of election cycles,” Sanchez said. “Republican outreach has increased pretty significantly since 2018 for Latinos, and I think that pays dividends.”
Latino business people get attention
Those economic concerns are echoed by Latino business owners candidates are meeting with.
Democratic Gov. Jared Polis sat in the center of several tables at Senõr Bear, a restaurant in Denver’s Highland neighborhood, with a dozen women and a half-dozen men in early October.
The Latino business owners — many in the restaurant business, some in construction — shared concerns about finding workers in a tight labor market and rising prices. One of their solutions: Immigration reform.
“We need to talk about the immigration reform and nobody wants to talk about it,” said Ale Spray, who works for a construction company. She said once workers are trained, they leave for larger companies.
Polis said Congress needs to enact immigration reform, but he said refugees from Ukraine and elsewhere will provide some workforce relief.
“That helps, but we don’t have the legal ability in the state to convey a work permit,” he said.
As Polis ended the event, Spray spoke up again. “As a woman, thank you for protecting the right to choose,” referring to abortion. Her statement was met with cheers and applause.
“The No. 1 wedge issue, if you want to call it that, is abortion,” Sanchez, the political scientist and pollster said. “For Latinas, in particular, that’s their No. 2 important issue behind inflation.”
Spanish language messaging is mixed, with late attack ads
Both Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and his Republican challenger, Joe O’Dea, began airing ads on Spanish-language TV in late August and early September. Caraveo and O’Dea are running ads on Spanish-language radio, as are several outside groups.
O’Dea often invoked his Latino wife and Latino workforce at his Denver construction company — Concrete Express Inc. — when discussing Latino issues.
“I was just asked the other day by a reporter, ‘What type of outreach are you doing with the Hispanic community?’” O’Dea said during a speech in Pueblo in late September. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m talking to my mother-in-law. I’m talking to my wife.’ She’s the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants. I’m talking to my teammates at CEI. This is my family. I don’t need an outreach program.”
“I understand that the Latino community is not monolithic,” O’Dea said. “You win their vote by making the case to individual voters. Record high inflation, rising crime, quality of education and immigration reform are all important issues to Hispanic, Chicano and Latino voters.”
The mailers include crude transphobic language and false allegations that Democratic President “Joe Biden wants men in girls’ bathrooms, locker rooms and sports leagues.”
Ilse Flores, the parent of a nonbinary 6-year-old, is outraged by the mailers. The social worker moved with her family to Arvada from Greeley about a year ago,
“It hurts so much,” she said. “It creates so much fear.”
Flores, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico at age 5, can’t vote this year. While she’s a permanent resident, she hasn’t applied for citizenship — yet.
“My plan is to go (for it) before 2024,” she said. “I need to vote.”