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Hispanic Republicans vie to oust Democrats in diverse districts

Candidates run as GOP works to counter image as party of white voters

Republican Mayra Flores served several months in the House after winning a 2022 special election in Texas’ 34th District, and she’s vying for a comeback in 2024.
Republican Mayra Flores served several months in the House after winning a 2022 special election in Texas’ 34th District, and she’s vying for a comeback in 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected Aug. 24 | Maria Montero remembers her grandfather, a Democrat and loyal member of the carpenters union, yelling at President Ronald Reagan on television when she was growing up in a predominantly Hispanic part of Allentown, Pa.

Reagan had a different effect on Montero, however, giving her inspiration “that life was full of opportunity.” A first-generation American whose father was Peruvian, she became an attorney and the director of the state Commission on Women under a Republican governor, and is now part of a new class of Hispanic Republicans competing for House seats in 2024.

Members of the group span the ideological spectrum from the far right to the moderate middle, but all hail from racially diverse districts that were won by Democrat Joe Biden in 2020 and are represented by Democrats. 

In addition to Montero, the group includes Kevin Lincoln, the mayor of Stockton, Calif., who is Mexican American and Black; John Quiñones, a Puerto Rican-born former legislator in Central Florida’s 9th District; and Mayra Flores, who was born in Mexico and won a special election in South Texas in June 2022, then lost the seat five months later. (Montero and Quiñones will both have to win Republican primaries if they are to face Democratic incumbents in November 2024.) 

In recent years, the Republican Party has sought to bolster its recruitment of candidates with backgrounds and experiences that reflect the diversity of their districts — and counter the image of the GOP as the party of white voters. 

For a conservative movement that has embraced tough talk on immigration and made opposition to diversity initiatives a core part of its identity, the effort can be tricky, said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant and co-founder of the Lincoln Project.

“The Republican Party has become so overwhelmingly, monolithically white in the past couple of decades, and … that share of the electorate is rapidly shrinking,” Madrid said, “so it needs more diverse candidates while suggesting diversity has nothing to do with what they’re doing.”

Republicans view the push to recruit Hispanic candidates as essential to the party’s effort to maintain the majority in the House, where a net gain of five seats by Democrats next year would give them the speaker’s gavel. 

“Republican candidates don’t just look like America, their life experiences reflect the daily challenges Americans face,” said Will Reinert, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee. “By embodying the American dream, Republicans can win anywhere in the Land of Opportunity.”

In 2020, Republicans had a net gain of 14 seats in the House, and every seat they flipped from Democrats was captured by a woman, a veteran or a candidate of color. In 2022, the party put forth a historic slate of nearly 70 Black, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American candidates.

Still, Republican Latinos in Congress remain outnumbered: Of the 50 Hispanic members of the House, 36 are Democrats and 14 are Republicans.

“As the diversity of representation in Congress grows, Democrats have always and continue to lead the way by connecting with voters and addressing the issues that matter most to them,” said Viet Shelton, press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The anti-immigrant rhetoric promoted by House Republicans is just another extension of their fundamental vulnerability: a devotion to MAGA extremism over kitchen table issues. They are out of touch and unwilling to address issues working families care about.”

Republicans see room for growth and have been focused on building Latino support. Polls suggest the strategy is starting to bear fruit: Latino voters continue to support Democrats, but by a smaller margin than they did in 2018, according to a review of the 2022 midterm elections by the Pew Research Center. In November, 60 percent of Hispanic voters cast ballots for Democrats while 39 percent supported Republicans. In 2018, 72 percent favored Democrats and 25 percent backed Republicans.

Moreover, Biden’s approval rating among Latino voters has been stuck below 50 percent for most of the summer. 

Yet Madrid says both parties have misunderstood Hispanic voters.

“White college-educated people are pulling the Democratic Party to the left and white non-college-educated people are pulling the Republican Party to the right, and Latinos are coming up in the middle saying, ‘I’m not really comfortable with either of you guys,’” Madrid said. “Latinos are to the right of most Democrats, and they’re to the left of most Republicans. And they’re the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, so the potential for Latinos to moderate both parties is very high.”

Some Hispanic Republicans, such as Flores in Texas’ 34th District, embrace a hard-right position on immigration, oppose legal abortion and strongly back former President Donald Trump. Flores was the first Mexican-born member of Congress.

But others running in districts that Biden won in 2020 have taken a more moderate approach that focuses on bipartisanship and sidesteps divisive cultural issues in favor of bread-and-butter economics.

Lincoln has sought to distance himself from party labels as he campaigns in California’s Central Valley, where he is vying to unseat Democratic Rep. Josh Harder in the 9th District, which leans Democratic and would have voted for Joe Biden by about 13 percentage points in 2020.

“The issues that we deal with here, they’re not issues of Republicans and Democrats, or red and blue,” Lincoln said. “When inflation is high, [it] squeezes the people in this district from many angles. When we deal with homelessness and the root cause of it, and public safety and protecting our aging senior population, these are things that are important to everybody.”

Trying not to campaign on the most polarizing issues does not make them go away, however. Just hours after announcing his campaign, Lincoln stumbled on a reporter’s questions about abortion access and diversity initiatives within the military, for example. 

In an interview, Lincoln sought to put the controversy behind him, saying voters in the 9th District “understand that choice is the law of the land in California.”

In Pennsylvania’s 7th District, Montero is underscoring a similar theme. She hopes to unseat Democratic Rep. Susan Wild (although she will have to dispatch with two fellow Republicans, state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie and business owner Kevin Dellicker, first.) Biden won the district, which is centered in Allentown and Bethlehem, by less than 1 percentage point.

“I may not be what your typical Republican looks like,” Montero said. “But so much of … our community reflects Republican values. So when I’m going door to door and speaking with folks, they talk about the economy, which isn’t like a race issue, it isn’t a party issue. It’s just common sense.”

The ethnicities of Maria Montero’s grandfather and father have been corrected in this report.

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