Where is the Latino Vote Headed in Pennsylvania?
Nationally, Latinos are flexing their growing political muscle. They now make up 11% of the U.S. House, for example. In Pennsylvania, however, Latino voters essentially sat out the last election. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, turnout in the state’s most heavily Latino districts was less than half that of 2020. Turnout was lower among white and black voters, too, but by much smaller margins – 20% fewer white and 36% fewer black voters.
Why was the Latino drop-off so pronounced? Most Puerto Rican and Dominican voters number among the working poor, with lower levels of education and other characteristics of voters who reliably turn out in primaries and off-year elections. As Yesenia Rodriguez, a recent Democratic state House candidate in Hazleton put it, “most Dominicans vote only for president” and don’t follow local elections closely. Many newcomers to the U.S. are confused or apathetic about local and state politics, with their numerous off-year primaries and municipal elections.
This might help explain why just one Latino – Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, formerly the president of Reading’s city council – was elected to the state House, though there were four districts with sizeable Latino demographics.
Cepeda-Freytiz’s background indicates the changing demographics and politics of Eastern Pennsylvania. She was born in New York City but spent several years going to schools in the Dominican Republic. After a university education in New York, and a career in education, she moved to Reading in 2007 and started a small business. Her campaign was endorsed by women’s groups and unions, and she emphasized the environment and gun safety. Because the number of Latino officials in the state House is so low – about 2.5% of the total – she will join the chamber’s Black Caucus.
Rodriguez, who ran in the Hazleton area’s 116th legislative district, did not fare as well. Born in the Dominican Republic, she grew up in Brooklyn, then came to Pennsylvania twenty years ago. She runs a bakery and campaigned on similar issues as Cepeda-Freytiz. But her campaign struggled for funding, and the demographics were against her. Though the city of Hazleton has a Hispanic-majority population, whites are more than 57% of the voters in the legislative district at large, which has been averse to changing demographics. Rodriguez was fighting uphill against the shift of whites (and some Latinos) to the Republican Party. Low turnout among Dominicans (who dominate the area’s Hispanic population) led to a two-to-one loss.
In statewide races, among those Hispanics who did vote, Democrats held Republicans’ share of the vote to about 30% (meaning Democrats won 70% of their votes), according to Chuck Rocha, one of the hosts of The Latino Vote podcast, who worked with U.S. Sen. John Fetterman’s campaign. Democrats advertised on Spanish-language radio and newspapers in the eastern parts of the state. Republican Mehmet Oz’s campaign and the GOP more generally failed to do sufficient outreach to a notoriously hard-to-reach electorate.
Outside of the Commonwealth, Democrats have had to work considerably harder to hold Republicans to just 40% of the vote. Mike Madrid, the Republican co-host of The Latino Vote, noted that the movement to Republicans is undeniable. The GOP nominated a record number of Latinos, many of whom embraced the MAGA movement.
In most states, Latino voters demonstrated a centrist and pragmatic approach. In Texas’s 28th congressional district, in the Rio Grande Valley, a MAGA Latina, Cassy Garcia, lost to Henry Cuellar, perhaps the most moderate Democrat in that caucus. Another MAGA Latina, Mayra Flores, lost to Vincente Gonzalez in the state’s 34th district. More often than not, Latinos rejected election-deniers, which, in Madrid’s view, is good news. As Madrid put it, “that portends well for moderation in our body politic and will force both parties to come to the center.”
Half of the fifteen U.S. House districts with the most Latinos are represented by Republicans and half by mostly centrist Democrats. In Madrid’s view, a more diverse GOP caucus (and this class has the most Latinos) will need to represent conservatives whose concerns extend beyond a heavily white and aging demographic.
Back home in Pennsylvania, Latinos should be an increasingly important part of the political calculus. They remain Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing demographic and make up 6% of the voting population, living mostly in the region from Allentown to York and east to Philadelphia. The Commonwealth’s Latinos increased by 45% in the last decade; they now make up 8.5% of the state’s total population. Latinos tend to be younger than the average Pennsylvanian, meaning that their share of the vote is almost sure to increase in the years to ahead. And next year is a presidential election – meaning that the half of the Latino electorate that sat out 2022 is likely to make its preferences known.