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Upcoming elections present opportunities for Latino candidates — and the party that backs them

Partisan networks can help Latino candidates overcome the hurdles that have kept them out of office in the past.

Texas state Sens. José Menéndez, José Rodríguez, and Sylvia Garcia.
Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman

All across the country, states’ filing deadlines for political candidacy are coming up in the next few weeks. Volunteers seeking signatures and contributions to help cover petition requirements and filing fees on behalf of candidates will be knocking on the doors of likely voters. For many office seekers, these hurdles can be daunting. But they also present an opportunity for underrepresented minority groups.

Latinos, like many other minority groups in American politics, continue to be underrepresented in elected office. Latinos currently make up 8.4 percent of Congress, but they are 17 percent of the total US population and 10.7 percent of the total US voting-age population. Moreover, as Latinos and pro-immigration groups currently find themselves in an impasse over immigration reform, they might turn to open-seat primaries to gain seats at the table and exert greater influence in Congress.

After all, this is how other groups and organizations have historically transformed the makeup of our political parties and brought their demands forward. The major factions of the Democratic and Republican parties have historically focused on showing strength in primaries as a way to exert influence over the parties’ platforms.

Throughout the early 20th century, the efforts of organizations like the NAACP and, later, unions like the Congress of Industrial Organizations concentrated on adding civil rights planks to the Democratic Party’s platform rather than on unseating Republican legislators. A few decades later, religious conservatives used dormant local Republican Party organizations to enter the party from the ground up across the Midwest and South. Groups like the Tea Party have focused on primary elections, upending the Republican Party despite achieving mixed results in the general election. More recently, local chapters of progressive groups like Indivisible have followed suit, supporting primary challengers to conservative Democrats.

As important as open-seat primaries are to changing the makeup of our political parties, broadening the parties’ coalitions, and exerting greater influence over policy, Latinos face strong challenges in these. To study how Latinos fared in open-seat primaries, we compiled data on Latino and non-Latino almost-ran candidates and announced candidates running for Congress in open seats from 2004 through 2014. To this data we appended election returns, characteristics of the candidates and of the districts where they were running as well as data on the political networks endorsing and supporting each candidate. We also relied on a survey of political elites in both parties to gain insight on how elites view the status of Latinos in the parties.

Our analysis found that, while for candidates from established groups, the prospect of facing a difficult primary is not a deterrent to competing in that primary, it is a deterrent for Latino candidates. We additionally found that Latino candidates are deterred by competitive primaries because they fear not being able to mount large campaigns due to lack of support from political networks. Latino candidates are relatively underfunded and under-endorsed compared to non-Latino candidates, and failing to receive resources of this kind is associated with poorer performance in primaries.

These findings are consistent with prior evidence regarding female candidates, where women were found to be less likely to become candidates because they are averse to running due to competitive and costly electoral contests. Even controlling for gender, we find a strong independent and negative relationship between Latino ethnicity and likelihood of running in an open seat.

Supportive political networks can mitigate this problem. However, we find that the networks of policy-demanding activists and groups that support Latino candidates are not currently well-connected to either national party. Our research suggests that the peripheral and limited nature of the networks supporting Latinos is associated with the fact that the elder statespeople of either party, the presidential convention-goers who have been around for many cycles, are less likely to believe the party needs more Latinos in its coalition than do younger convention-goers. Furthermore, our findings indicate that the donors who focus on Latino candidates are less well-connected than other donors, and that fundraisers held on behalf of Latino candidates feature fewer party elites and raise less money.

All this means that a longstanding barrier for Latinos to enter elected office is tied to limited support that Latinos receive from active networks and long-established political elites. Candidates are supported by coalitions of policy-demanding activists who count on candidates to fulfill an agenda, and in exchange, these coalitions of activists provide candidates with the necessary resources to deploy successful campaigns and achieve a victory.

Our work, then, suggests that Latinos running for office in open-seat primaries would be successful if they had more concrete support from established and well-connected elite and activist networks. The choices made by the wealthiest and most established organizations in either party’s coalition will demonstrate a commitment or lack thereof to improving access to the legislature.

There are a number of ways that existent networks can support Latino candidates running in open seats. These include providing them with direct and indirect resources such as access to donors, volunteer support, endorsements, expertise of political operations, and financial contributions, among others.

Through qualitative work, we have found that various organizations have succeeded in getting Latino candidates elected through these types of support. Some of the organizations involved in getting Latinos elected the past include traditional groups such as labor unions, Emily’s List, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), as well as other less traditional sources such as local activists and local political influencers. The activities of these networks in getting Latinos elected in prior open-seat primaries could be replicated this cycle in the NV-4, TX-16, NM-1- FL-27, and CA-29 congressional races.

In the present cycle, some organizations have begun working on behalf of Latino candidates. One example comes from the support that state Sen. Sylvia Garcia received in the recent TX-29 primary. Garcia received strong backing from Emily’s List, the Latino Victory Fund, local chapters of the AFL-CIO, the Human Rights Campaign, and several other organizations. Garcia faced Tahir Javed, a well-funded and well-connected primary opponent. The support of organizations behind Garcia was critical in mobilizing voters in the district, allowing her to tap into additional donor networks and making outside expenditures on her behalf.

No one ever said muscling one’s way into a party would be easy, but open-seat primaries are prime opportunities to do so. This is especially the case for Latinos who continue to remain underrepresented in elected office. However, Latinos running for higher office encounter unique obstacles in terms of funding, endorsements, and national elite partisan support. In an era when there is a strong consensus on how pivotal Latinos are in American politics, the rewards to the party that successfully incorporates Latinos will be immense. The capacity of either party to reap those rewards will present themselves to us in the next few weeks as a new wave of open-seat contests takes place.

Angela X. Ocampo and John Ray are PhD candidates in UCLA’s political science department.

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