By Ed O’Keefe,
LAS VEGAS — Two of Nevada’s Democratic congressional candidates sat at a Mexican restaurant here recently listening as small-business owners vented over chips and salsa about high taxes, business regulations and health-care costs.
Unlike most such conversations in U.S. politics, this one was conducted in “Spanglish.”
The meeting was hosted by Catherine Cortez Masto, a Mexican American who would be the first female Hispanic ever elected to the U.S. Senate, and House candidate Ruben Kihuen, a Mexican immigrant who would be the state’s first Latino congressman. In a year when political parties and interest groups are spending millions of dollars to mobilize Latino voters — and when the words of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump are being used as a galvanizing force — they are a rare sight.
If Latinos show up to vote this fall, most of them probably won’t find one of their own on the ballot. Hispanics comprise roughly 17 percent of the U.S. population, but just 2 percent of the country’s political officeholders, according to one measure.
In Nevada, Cortez Masto and Kihuen are each locked in close contests and they know they will need the votes of Hispanics, which is why they find ways to emphasize their backgrounds — and to attack Trump.
When Trump calls Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, “he’s talking about my family. It’s very offensive,” Cortez Masto said in an interview.
Trump is “racist, homophobic and doesn’t support our community — not only with his words, but also with his actions,” Kihuen told the business owners in Spanish.
Javier Becerra, who owns a graphic-design company, stood up during the meeting and implored the business owners to help Cortez Masto and Kihuen: “We have the biggest politicians, Hispanics, right there,” he said pointing at them. “This is a historical moment. It’s not time to go to sleep and dream. It’s time to wake up and work.”
There are Latino elected officials in at least 46 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, according to the nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). That tally includes more than 30 Hispanic members of Congress — different accounts vary depending on how individual members classify themselves. At least 13 new Hispanic candidates are running for House or Senate seats this year, according to Democrats and Republicans, a group that would comprise the largest incoming class of Latino lawmakers ever if they all win. (Ten were elected in 2012.)
Among them are Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who is also running for an open U.S. Senate seat and would also become the first Latina U.S. senator. But she trails California Attorney General Kamala Harris in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
In New York City, Democrat Adriano Espaillat is poised to become the first Dominican American elected to Congress as he seeks to win the Harlem seat held for decades by retiring Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.). In Florida, Democrat Darren Soto is expected to win an Orlando-area seat, making him the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from a state increasingly dominated by former island residents.
Nationwide, Latinos represented 3 percent of all political candidates and 2 percent of all officeholders from the county level on up in 2014, according to a study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, a project of the nonpartisan Women Donors’ Network seeking to elect more women and minorities to office.
“It’s actually pretty remarkable, because people of color are underrepresented in general both on the ballot and in elected office. But Latinos are the most underrepresented group,” said Brenda Carter, who directed the study.
But Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO, said that Latinos are increasingly running in areas not traditionally dominated by Latinos, including Republican Reps. Raúl R. Labrador (Idaho) and Jamie Herrera Beutler (Wash.).
“These are not Hispanic elected officials being elected by Latinos. They’re being elected in their own right by members of their political parties, and they’re presenting themselves as the best candidates,” Vargas said. “Which to me is a great thing because if we are going to only depend upon [congressional redistricting] to elect Latinos to office, we’re never going to approach parity.”
In Nevada, Hispanics comprise nearly 30 percent of the state’s voting population and 18 percent of the state’s eligible voters — a sizable chunk in a competitive presidential battleground state. Both parties understand that Hispanic candidates can be the key to victory. After all, the state’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, is one of two of the nation’s Hispanic governors.
“What we have going on in Nevada did not happen overnight,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who has mentored Cortez Masto and Kihuen for years and is friendly with Sandoval.
Reid understands the power of the Latino vote here perhaps better than any other national political figure. He barely won reelection in 2010 thanks to a last-minute surge of Hispanic support, especially among Las Vegas’s culinary and hospitality workers.
“We proved in 2010 that around the country, the strength of Hispanics is in the way that people vote,” Reid said. “It’s gotten better, not worse, and it’s been compounded because of that worthless fraud running for president.”
The “fraud,” in Reid’s view, is Trump. Cortez Masto and Kihuen agree, but for them Trump’s attacks are deeply personal.
Cortez Masto, 52, is trailing Rep. Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.) in a closely watched race to succeed Reid. Both candidates have faced more than $10 million in attack ads aired against them, including more than $7 million in ads against the Democrat paid by entities controlled by the industrialist Koch brothers, Reid’s longtime foes.
Her father moved from Mexico at a young age and parked cars at a Las Vegas casino for a living; her mother was Italian. Cortez Masto’s father occasionally spoke to her in Spanish, she said, but her parents insisted that she would speak English predominantly, especially outside the home.
“Very rarely did they speak it because at that time they felt it was all about assimilation,” she said.
Cortez Masto does not speak Spanish when campaigning among Hispanics — she is somewhat unassuming on the stump — but her aides distribute blue and orange Spanish-language campaign signs that say, “Una de las Nuestras,” or “One of Us.”
Kihuen, meanwhile, campaigns flawlessly in both languages — and is far more outgoing. Political forecasters give him the edge in a contest against first-term incumbent Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.) to represent the state’s 4th Congressional District. The 36-year-old, who pronounces his last name “key-when,” moved from Mexico in 1988. His parents first settled the family in California, then Nevada.
“Their first job was picking strawberries in the fields of California,” Kihuen said. “We didn’t know where we were going to live, we had no connections, no friends, no family. Thirty years later, their son is a state senator running for Congress. That’s the essence of the American Dream.”
With less than two months to go, Cortez Masto and Kihuen can probably count on strong Hispanic support, but there’s evidence that she especially may be struggling to connect. A recent Univision News poll released last week found that nearly 4 in 10 Hispanic voters do not know enough about Cortez Masto to register an opinion — even though she leads Heck among Hispanics by a wide margin.
The history of her candidacy “should resonate more. I’m not sure why it’s not resonating as much,” said Gil Lopez, 29, a recent law school graduate at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who is supporting Cortez Masto. “Maybe because the whole election cycle, there’s not that much excitement about Trump versus Clinton. But that’s something we’ve got to really change.”
That will mean tracking down voters such as Sylvia Navarro, a Mexican American housekeeper, who lives in Las Vegas’s Winchester neighborhood. Standing at a street-corner food stand with her three teenage sons eating spiced mango and vanilla-flavored slushies, she said she had heard very little about Cortez Masto. Navarro was surprised to learn that she might have the opportunity to elect the nation’s first Latina senator.
“Really?” she said. “Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I haven’t seen anything about that yet.”
Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.