Latino voters could boost Democrats under California's new House map — if they can reverse GOP gains
- California has approved a new congressional map with six more majority-Latino districts.
- The new legislative boundaries could help Democrats as they try to hold majorities in the 2022 midterms, but only if they can start to reverse Republican inroads with Latino voters.
- Experts said both parties need to increase meaningful engagement with Latino communities.
California's new congressional map gives more power to Latinos voters, a fast-growing group that has historically leaned left.
The tweaked districts could be good news for national Democrats this year as they struggle to keep control of Congress — but only if they take the Golden State's Latino electorate seriously, experts said.
"Given the national climate and what they're up against, Democrats will be extremely grateful for any kind of gain in California during the midterms," said John Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College.
Holding ground or picking up additional Democratic seats in California could boost the party during the midterms, when it will fight to defend its slim majority in the U.S. House and dispel a historic trend that points to a poor year for President Joe Biden's party.
California is among the 36 states that have approved maps in the decennial redistricting process, which reshapes legislative boundaries after each U.S. Census to adjust for demographic shifts. An independent redistricting commission redraws legislative seats in California to avoid partisan gerrymandering, which has occurred in some states that give redistricting power to their legislatures. For the first time in history, the nation's most populous state lost a congressional seat due to slow population growth over the past decade.
The new congressional map brings a notable change in six more majority-Latino districts, which takes the state total to 16, according to an analysis released last month by the Public Policy Institute of California. Those majority-Latino seats make up roughly 30% of the state's 52 congressional districts.
If Latinos vote Democratic, the new districts could help Democrats tighten their grip on the state's congressional delegation to the U.S. House. California Democrats hold a 42 to 10 majority, with one vacant seat.
But Democrats should not take success in the majority-Latino districts for granted.
While candidates and political operatives across the country have stressed the importance of winning over Latino voters, no one strategy fits the culturally, geographically and economically diverse electorate. Latino voters hold different priorities in separate parts of the country, and in the various regions of California.
Gaining more of an advantage in California will hinge on whether Democrats "meaningfully engage" with the state's Latino voters, who may not vote as decisively blue as expected, according to Christian Arana, vice president of policy at Latino Community Foundation, an independent Latino advocacy nonprofit based in California.
"California's Latino vote could be the best and last hope for Democrats nationally as they try to maintain their control over the House," Arana said. "But there would need to be more engagement and investment in these majority-Latino districts."
"Democrats in the state would actually have to come into these communities and put in their best effort to mobilize them, and that really goes for either party if they want these votes. They have to be proactive," he added.
Up for grabs?
Arana said the increase in majority-Latino districts is a "product of the fact that Latinos were the driving force" of population growth in the state.
The Latino population in California grew by 11%, or about 1.5 million, from 2010 to 2020, according to Census data. Latinos became the largest racial or ethnic group in California by 2020, making up about 39% of the state's residents. This is up from 37% in 2010, when the state's largest racial or ethnic group was the white population, according to the Census.
There were nearly 15.6 million Latinos in California in 2020. Around 8 million of them are eligible voters, the largest Latino voting bloc in the nation, according to the Latino Community Foundation.
In 2020, Los Angeles County had the highest Latino population in the state at 4.8 million. But most of the Latino population growth over the past decade was concentrated in more rural areas of Northern California. This includes Humboldt, Place and Lake counties, which all saw 30% to 40% increases in their Latino population, according to the Census data.
Counties in the Central Valley also saw high rates of Latino population growth since 2010, ranging from 15% to 20% increases, the Census data showed. Most of the new Latino-majority congressional districts were drawn in this Central Valley area, with three located around Fresno, Bakersfield and Merced.
Latinos have historically voted Democratic in California and across the U.S.
But Michael Li, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, suggested that the political identities of Latino voters may "still be up for grabs, especially in the long term."
Li said Republicans have long talked about making inroads with Latino voters and other groups. If the party puts more "shoulder into the effort" and recruits candidates who appeal to Latinos, they could potentially win more of their votes in California, he added.
"These Latino voters could be good for Republicans if they are willing to do what they have to do to be competitive with voters of color," Li said. "Especially if we look to the future after this midterm cycle, it could be good for the party."
Recent research on the national level suggests that Republicans may have already made inroads with Latino voters. Trends suggest the Democratic lean among those voters that may not be stable.
An analysis from Equis Labs, a group dedicated to polling Latino voters, found that the Latino vote shifted nationwide from 71% Democratic in 2016 down to 63% in 2020. Meanwhile, white, Black and Asian voters remained relatively the same during that time period.
The same analysis found that 54% of Latino voters surveyed found it very or somewhat convincing that Democrats take them for granted and "want our votes but forget about us when it comes time to deliver."
Another analysis from the Pew Research Center found that former President Donald Trump narrowed Democrats' margins with Latino voters during the 2020 presidential election. Biden secured 59% of the Latino vote while Trump garnered 38%, which is "significantly over" the 25% of support received by Republican House candidates in 2018.
Though he won the majority of the Latino vote in 2020, Biden's job approval rating among Latinos plummeted to just 28% last month, according to a Quinnipiac University survey.
Democratic support among Latinos may not have fallen quite as much in California, exit polls from the most recent statewide election suggest.
About 60% of Latino voters sided with Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom during the California gubernatorial recall election last September, according to NBC News. But that's a few percentage points lower than in 2018 when 64% of Latino voters elected Newsom, the NBC News exit poll from that year showed.
Given the slight drop in Democratic support, experts said the party needs to step up its engagement with Latino voters in California.
"Democrats can't take the Latino voting bloc for granted," Arana said. "They could win Congress and maintain control but that depends on how well they actually engage Latino voters in the state."
Arana specifically pointed to addressing the issues confronting young Latinos, who make up half of the state's eligible Latino voters. Those include climate change, health care and housing costs, among other issues, he said.
"In the midst of this pandemic, we see kids literally having to work two, three jobs to provide for their families, and their family members often don't have health care. And in places like the Central Valley where so many Latinos live, you go outside and the air quality is horrendous," Arana said. "You're going to need to address those issues."
The Equis Research analysis found that the economy and the coronavirus pandemic became the top issues for Latino voters across the nation in 2020, replacing immigration. The economy was also high on the priority list among those voters in California, with 36% calling it the "most important issue facing" the Latino community in 2020, the analysis showed. This is a six-point increase from 2016, when immigration was the top issue among Latino voters in the state.
He added that social media ads and commercials won't be enough to mobilize Latino voters in California. Democrats, or even Republicans, looking to win the Latino vote should also prioritize "on-the-ground organizing that starts now, not one month away" from the midterm elections, Arana said.
Such tactics proved successful during the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats swept seven congressional districts in Orange County, which was once considered a stronghold for California Republicans, Arana said in an August 2021 op-ed. In each of those districts, more than 1 in 6 voters is Latino.
Arana attributed the wins to a multimillion-dollar effort by the Democratic National Committee to engage with voters through digital ads, on-the-ground canvassers and mail outreach, among other tactics, ahead of the midterms that year. But 2018 was also a much more favorable year for the party overall.
Similar tactics were used in 2020 on the national level. Biden's presidential campaign and the DNC ramped up engagement with Latino voters and other communities across the U.S. through a microtargeting strategy, which included a flurry of Spanish-language ads, phone banking and virtual events.
California did see a slightly higher turnout among Latino voters in 2020, according to a study from the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. But the study also found that participation gaps persisted among Latino voters in the state during the 2020 general election. The turnout rate of eligible Latino voters compared to the overall population in California widened in 2020, increasing about four points between 2016 and 2020.
Clarissa Martinez, deputy vice president of UnidosUS, a nonprofit Latino advocacy organization, echoed the need for such engagement efforts with Latino voters in California. But she emphasized that those efforts should come from both parties.
"Democrats and even Republicans need to do a better job courting these Latino voters, who have consistently seen weak outreach and engagement from candidates of both political parties," Martinez said. "This electorate can't be neglected."
A potential hurdle for Democrats
Aside from the potential for Latino voters to back Republicans, the addition of majority-Latino districts could pose another problem for Democrats.
The federal Voting Rights Act played a major role in the increase in majority-Latino districts in California, said Paul Mitchell, a political data analyst and owner of the firm Redistricting Partners. The state's independent redistricting commission had to comply with a provision of the VRA that ensures minority groups have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.
This means the commission had to draw districts for an "underrepresented racial or ethnic group where that group is large, geographically concentrated and politically distinct" in California, according to the Public Policy Institute of California analysis.
"The commission was able to use race as more of a factor in the way lines were drawn," Mitchell said. "It had a huge role in the drawing of more majority-Latino congressional districts in California."
But he said that majority-Latino districts in California could potentially hurt Democrats — if Latinos do vote for them during the midterms.
Mitchell noted the VRA requirements often lead to minority voters being packed into only a handful of districts, effectively ensuring their representation in those areas. But concentrating Latino voters in a district could dilute their influence in surrounding districts.
Mitchell said that effect could come to pass in California, which would be a disadvantage for Democrats and a boon to Republicans. However, the argument relies on the assumption that Democrats would disproportionately win Latino voters, which may not hold in the future.
George Cheung, the director of More Equitable Democracy, a nonprofit racial justice organization, cited the same argument and called it one of the "unintended consequences" of majority-minority districts.
He said "packing" minority voters into one district is one tactic of gerrymandering, or the manipulation of district lines to favor one party or group of people. Drawing a district where Latinos are the overwhelming majority could potentially "waste" thousands of Latino votes that could have been used to elect a candidate of choice in another district, Cheung added.
"It is possible that the creation of these Latino-majority districts might actually lead to an overall increase in the number of Republicans elected," he said.
"Winner-take-all elections often create something of a Sophie's Choice scenario: helping more Latino voters elect their preferred candidates of choice might ironically also help elect more candidates hostile to those same Latino voters," Cheung continued.
But Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at PPIC, said evidence for this argument about majority-minority districts is "spotty."
"People have argued that there's this tradeoff where the more representation you provide for racial-ethnic minorities, the worse Democrats do overall. But I don't think that's really the case," he said, adding that the independent redistricting commission did not account for partisan data when redrawing congressional districts.
Li, the senior counsel from the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, echoed McGhee, saying that the commission was prohibited from drawing maps with any political bias. He said its job was to keep minority communities together and "let cards fall out where they fall out politically."
California vs. Texas
Li added that the commission's creation of majority-minority districts stands in stark contrast with redistricting in Texas, which was carried out by the GOP state legislature. He said minority voters in Texas are heavily packed, which creates more Republican districts.
Unlike California, the Texas state legislature did not draw any new majority-Latino districts. Latinos make up 39% of the population in the state, according to Census data.
The Justice Department is suing Texas under the VRA, claiming that its new maps "dilute the increased minority voting strength that should have developed" from demographic shifts, NBC News reported. The state was allocated two more congressional seats, but they are both majority-white districts.
Martinez, the deputy vice president of UnidosUS, said Texas' redistricting "undeniably dishonors and quiets" Latino voters.
Yet, she said, while the creation of majority-Latino districts in California is "more encouraging" than the process in Texas, there is still room for improvement in the state's redistricting process.
"There's more progress to be made in ensuring that Latinos and other communities are meaningfully represented and have a meaningful voice. That work continues," she said, adding that the effect of the majority-Latino districts in the state "remains to be seen."
"This is something we will be watching closely this fall and in the next couple of midterm cycles," she said.