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There are only 4 Latino senators. Will more be joining them after 2020?

Playing field for Latino Senate candidates shifted after developments in Arizona and New Mexico

Assistant House Speaker Ben Ray Luján is considering running for the open Senate seat in New Mexico. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Assistant House Speaker Ben Ray Luján is considering running for the open Senate seat in New Mexico. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Activists looking to increase the number of Latino senators are regrouping this week after an Arizona congressman they had backed passed on a Senate run and a seat in plurality-Hispanic New Mexico opened up.

The parallel developments changed the playing field but ultimately kept alive hopes there will be more Hispanic representation in the Senate after the 2020 elections.

Currently, there are currently just four Latino senators — Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. Democrats are targeting three GOP-held states with sizable Latino populations: Arizona, Texas and Colorado. New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall’s decision to retire opens up his blue-state seat.

Latino activists said this week they saw their biggest opportunity in New Mexico, where both the Hispanic voting population and the number of potentially formidable Hispanic hopefuls have grown. But their prospects of recruiting strong Latino candidates in the other three states are less clear.

The Latino Victory Fund, which supports liberal candidates, had been trying to get Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego to run for Senate, but Gallego announced Monday he was staying in the House.

The group is now drafting Assistant House Speaker Ben Ray Luján to run for Senate in New Mexico. The fund launched a similar effort to convince Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro to run for Senate in Texas.

“Latino Victory Fund remains committed to increasing Latino representation in the Senate and will continue expanding its draft efforts in Texas and New Mexico,” group spokesman Javier Gamboa said in a statement. “In 2020 we will make history by electing more Latino Democrats to the Senate.”

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‘Enchanting’ opportunity

In New Mexico, Udall’s announcement set off speculation about a throng of potential candidates, many of them Latino, jumping at the rare opportunity in a state where senators tend to serve for decades.

The Land of Enchantment has the country’s highest percentage of eligible Hispanic voters, according to the Pew Research Center, at 45 percent. But the state has not had a Latino senator since 1977.

That’s not for a lack of opportunities. In 2012, the last time New Mexico had an open Senate seat, state Auditor Hector Balderas, who is Hispanic, lost the Democratic primary to Rep. Martin Heinrich by 18 points. Heinrich, who is white and grew up on a Missouri cattle ranch, is now the state’s junior senator.

Latino politicians and activists in New Mexico say a lot has changed since then.

“I am willing to bet that we are going to have a Latino leader take that position,” said Cindy Nava, a Latino activist with ties to the state.

The state’s Hispanic population has grown to 49 percent, up from 42 percent in 2000, according to Pew. Latinos have been showing up at the polls in record rates. In the 2018 midterms, 34 percent more Latinos cast ballots in New Mexico than in 2014, according to the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA.

Also, the Hispanic candidates who have signaled interest in the race this time around have more political experience and name recognition than in other recent elections, state political experts said.

Potentially formidable candidates on the list of possible contenders include Luján and Balderas, who has gone on since his 2012 primary defeat to become the state’s attorney general.

Several Latinos have also been mentioned as possible candidates on the Republican side. They include former Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, state Rep. Kelly Fajardo and former Gov. Susana Martinez.

But those Republicans would face an uphill battle in blue New Mexico. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales continues to rate the Senate race Solid Democratic.

“If we did have a Latino United States senator, that person would be on the national stage instantly, and we would be very proud to have that opportunity as a state,” Democratic state Rep. Antonio Maestas said. “Only a handful of states have the opportunity to elect a Latino, and New Mexicans may look at it as our responsibility.”

Other targets

Texas presents the next best opportunity for a Latino candidate to compete in a high-profile Senate race. Castro is considering challenging GOP Sen. John Cornyn in a state where 30 percent of eligible voters are Latino. Cornyn won 48 percent of Texas Latino voters in his 2014 race, according to Pew.

On Monday, the Latino Victory Fund launched a “Run Joaquin Run!” campaign, calling on Castro to jump into the race. The campaign involves digital ads targeted to Latino voters. A sample ad shared with Roll Call urges viewers to sign on to a petition supporting Castro, calling him “the candidate we need to unseat Senator John Cornyn.”

“There would be a lot of excitement around [Castro’s] candidacy,” said Andy Canales, co-chairman of the Latino Texas PAC, which supports Latino candidates at the state and local level.

“I think it would generate a lot of interest around the Latino community because we typically don’t see a lot of candidates running for office at the local level or the statewide level,” Canales said.

Trump carried the Lonestar State by 9 points in 2016 and Inside Elections rates Cornyn’s bid for a fourth term Solid Republican.

But prospects have dimmed for Latino candidates in two other competitive Senate races where high-profile contenders have opted not to run.

The Latino Victory Fund had been encouraging Gallego to run for Senate in Arizona, which has never elected a Latino senator. But Gallego decided Monday not to challenge appointed GOP Sen. Martha McSally in a race Inside Elections rates a Toss-up. He said polling showed that the only way to win a primary was to wage a bitter fight against retired astronaut and Navy veteran Mark Kelly, who entered the race last month.

Gamboa’s statement indicated that the fund is focusing its efforts on other states now that Gallego is not running. The congressman told reporters Monday he had heard other people were considering running for Senate, but he declined to name names.

The next state with the highest percentage of eligible Hispanic voters, also hosting a competitive Senate race, is Colorado, where Latinos make up 16 percent of eligible voters and 21 percent of the population.

Republican incumbent Cory Gardner is a top Democratic target as one of two GOP senators running in states Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Inside Elections rates his re-election a Toss-Up.

Activist Lorena Garcia, who is of Mexican descent, is running in the Democratic primary, but she is not usually mentioned among the higher-profile hopefuls who have previously run statewide, including former state Sen. Mike Johnston and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

Crisanta Duran, who was the first Latina state House speaker in the country, was considering a Senate run in Colorado. But she decided to challenge Rep. Diana DeGette in a primary instead.

Garcia has been reaching out to other Latinos in the state, according to Nicole Melaku, the executive director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Action Fund.

“While the fundraising can be a barrier for Latinx communities, [Garcia] certainly understands how to do field work,” Melaku said. She was hopeful Garcia would attract Latino support, but her group is not making any endorsements until the fall. She was also not aware of any other Latino candidates eyeing the race.

“I think it’s important that our candidates reflect our demographics,” Melaku said. “We definitely see the connection of increased voter turnout and engagement when people are excited about the candidate, and many times, that comes down to identity.”

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