Was $18 million enough to lure Latino voters? Key victories for Democrats suggest as much

Jay Janner

In the first week of October, Democrats got a jolt when a South Texas district they had expected to win easily began to appear less of a certainty.

A week after the nonpartisan Cook Political Report changed its rating of the state's 34th Congressional District from "lean Democrat" to "toss-up," TV ads paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) began airing in English and Spanish. They criticized Republican Rep. Mayra Flores as an extremist who backs Texas’ anti-abortion law and who “sided with the mob when they stormed the Capitol.”

This was no last-minute ad, but what the DCCC, the House Democrats' political arm, said was part of an aggressive, well-funded campaign to engage Latino voters this election cycle.

Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez won the race, defeating Flores by about 8.5 percentage points in the district, where about 86 percent of registered voters are Latino. Gonzalez did his own spending and campaigning, but amid an onslaught of Republican spending in the region’s elections, the DCCC ads were welcome, Gonzalez’s campaign said.

“We did historic investments when it came to Latino voters and voters of color,” said Maríafernanda Zacarías, DCCC senior adviser for Latino engagement. “We were on the ground organizing for over a year and a half before November of this year … and it grew from already having those relationships on the ground to paid media.”

Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Latino and Latina candidates in the midterms, the DCCC said in a memo provided first to NBC News.

The memo said that the Latino support that the DCCC helped harness, contradicted two years of forecasting from pundits, media figures and some Democratic strategists that there would be an exodus of Latino support for Democrats this cycle. The narrative was driven, in part, by the gains former President Donald Trump made with Latinos in the 2020 election cycle.

In the recent midterm elections, Republicans won control of the House, winning 222 seats to Democrats’ 213, with two races not yet called by NBC News.

But some Hispanic Democrats found success in key races that Republicans had hoped to win.

In its memo, the DCCC touted wins by at least eight Hispanic Democratic candidates in House battlefield districts, including Reps. Mike Levin in California, Teresa Leger Fernandez in New Mexico, Gonzalez and Henry Cuellar in Texas as well as Reps-elect Andrea Salinas in Oregon, Yadira Caraveo in Colorado and Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez.

“Latino electorate-heavy districts from Virginia to Texas to Nevada turned out in support of Democrats,” the DCCC stated.

Not only was there not a significant decrease in Latino support for Democrats, the DCCC said, there were slight increases in Democratic support in some districts, such as those of Leger Fernandez, Cuellar and in Arizona’s 4th Congressional District, where about 19% of eligible voters are Hispanic.

The memo notes the DCCC spent $18 million on independent expenditures — money for TV and digital ads and other forms of communication that is not coordinated with the campaign — to target Latinos in races across the country. The spending was double the independent expenditure spending on Hispanics in 2020, the DCCC said.

That spending is in addition to $30 million that the committee set aside this election cycle for its Build Our Base program, aimed at reinforcing and growing support among voters of color.

Gonzalez in South Texas was one of the beneficiaries of the spending. The DCCC spent $1.15 million on English language ads and about $126,058 million on Spanish language ads, according to AdImpact data.

That Latino spending was just one portion of the big-money ultimately unsuccessful effort to hold the House Democratic majority.

In total, the DCCC spent about $100.4 million on TV, radio and digital advertising this past election cycle, according to data from the ad-tracking firm AdImpact. About $4.6 million of that was on Spanish-language advertising. And hundreds of millions more were spent by Democratic and Republican campaigns, as well as their affiliated outside groups.

A call for longer-term, deeper investment

Democratic strategist Matt Angle agreed with the DCCC that Republicans fell short of the rhetoric and stated goals in wooing Latino voters. Democrats invested in holding their Latino support and “mostly succeeded,” said Angle, who runs the Lone Star Project supporting Texas Democrats.

But he said the DCCC memo reflects “an almost entirely defensive strategy based on not losing ground with Latinos, rather than broadening and deepening support for Democrats beyond districts already held or drawn to be held by Democrats.”

Angle said more and earlier investment would have helped assure candidates in competitive districts and undermined structural progress Republicans had made developing local Latino leaders who will help them long term.

“Democrats will continue to be on the defensive without a longer term investment to create political structure that exists beyond individual campaigns,” he said.

Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha, a frequent critic of Democrats on investment in Latino voters and hiring of Latino consultants, said there’s no denying Latino voters “helped make history in the midterms.”

“But there is also no denying that if we want to win back control of Congress in 2024, we will need to win Latino-heavy congressional districts we lost in 2022 midterms," Rocha said, like Congressional District 27 in Florida, where Annette Taddeo lost to Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, or the 15th District in Texas, where Monica de la Cruz defeated Michelle Vallejo in a district redrawn to give Republicans the edge.

Rocha also named races in California (Districts 22, 27 and 13), all districts where President Joe Biden would have beaten Donald Trump by 10 or more points, if they had been on the ballot, according to the Cook Political Report.

The DCCC spent about $4.7 million in English language ads and about $13.9 million on Spanish language ads in California's 22nd Congressional District race where Republican David Valadao defeated Rudy Salas.

In California's 13th Congressional District, in California's Central Valley, the DCCC spent $2.7 million on English language ads and $415,841 on Spanish language ads, according to AdImpact. The race has yet to be called by NBC News.

Republican Rep. Mike Garcia defeated Democrat Christy Smith to return to Congress for California’s 27th Congressional District, based in northern Los Angeles. Democrats had a registration advantage in the district. Records show no DCCC spending in the district.

There were complaints during the election when Democratic committees and leaders pulled funding from the 15th Congressional District race in Texas, deciding Democrat Vallejo's polling was not showing she could win in a district drawn to favor Republicans.

The DCCC spent $147,935 in English language ads and $61,150 in Spanish language ads in that district, data shows. It also opened a headquarters for the district in spring, had staff on the ground after the primary and included Vallejo in its Red to Blue program that provides candidates resources for their campaigns.

Albert Morales, vice president at the GQR polling and opinion firm, said candidates can’t wait on the DCCC or other party infrastructure to pony up for them. Spending sometimes comes down to whether there is a good candidate in the race showing a strong chance of winning.

“We tend to think of the DCCC as an ATM," Morales said. "If you want to run for office, you have to make sure you show you have some game."

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com