Democrats test out the idea that access to abortions can help them win over Latinos.
The overturning of Roe vs. Wade this summer offered Democrats a new playbook for the Nov. 8 midterm elections when it comes to winning the Latino vote; promise to protect abortion rights. It’s a move that goes against the long-held assumption that Latinos skew socially conservative and hold antiabortion views rooted in their religious beliefs.
Today, as part of our ongoing coverage of the midterm elections; how a race in New Mexico gives us a window into the gamble that access to abortions can help Democrats win over Latinos. Read the full transcript here.
Host: Gustavo Arellano
Guests: L.A. Times national political correspondent Melanie Mason
Democrats are trying out a new pitch with Latino voters, one centered on abortion rights
Your guide to the 2022 California midterm election
Will young voters save Democrats in the midterm elections?
Political ad: Abortion ad Spanish: Si fuera por Yvette Herrell prohibirían el aborto sin excepciones por violación, incesto o para salvar la vida de la madre…
Gustavo Arellano: That’s a recent campaign ad from Gabe Vasquez…he’s running for Congress this year in New Mexico.
Political ad: Y sus posiciones extremistas no sólo atacan a las mujeres y sus derechos también son peligrosas.
Gustavo: Gabe is attacking his Republican opponent for not supporting abortion rights…that’s something Democrats nationwide have leaned on hard this election cycle.
Abortion ad in English: I will always protect the woman's right to choose. I'm Gabe Vasquez and that's why I approve this message.
Gustavo: But Gabe is Latino.
Gabe Vasquez: I'm not scared to talk about abortion. I'm not scared to bring that up as an issue that's incredibly important in this district.
Gustavo: Supporting abortion rights was long considered a third rail for Latino candidates… and really anyone seeking to court the Latino vote.
Protestors Clip: My body, my choice!
Gustavo: But the overturning of Roe versus Wade this summer offered Democrats a new playbook for the midterms… at a time when Latinos are reconsidering their loyalty to them.
I’m Gustavo Arellano. You’re listening to The Times, essential news from the L.A. Times.
It’s Monday, October 31, 2022.
Today, as part of our ongoing coverage of the midterm elections….The gamble that access to abortion… can help Democrats win over Latinos.
Here to talk about all this is my L.A. Times colleague, national political correspondent Melanie Mason. Melanie, welcome to The Times.
Melanie Mason: Good to be here.
Gustavo: So you flew out to New Mexico recently to spend time with Gabe Vasquez. Who is he? What's his story?
Melanie: So Gabe Vasquez is this Democratic challenger. So there is a sitting Republican candidate in this New Mexico district and this guy Gabe, he's young, he's 38 years old. He's a former Las Cruces city councilman.
Gabe Vasquez: As a city counselor, I was in charge of patching potholes and fixing broken streetlights.
Melanie: And I think a real sort of seen as potentially up and comer in the party.
Gabe: I always ask the question of, what's on your mind, right? What can I help with?
Melanie: He's an interesting candidate because he’s first-generation Mexican American, and he talks about this quite a bit when he's talking to voters.
Gabe: I'm a first generation American, a son of immigrants, a Spanish speaker, uh, somebody who helped start a small business, somebody who's been working on conservation, environmental issues.
Melanie: He mentions that his family is from Zacatecas and that he grew up on this side of the border, but spending a lot of time in his grandfather's television repair shop in Ciudad Juarez.
Gabe Vasquez: Right? And all 10 of his kids were in that TV repair shop, fixing microwaves and TVs. And as a kid, I was out on the curb selling those refurbished TVs.
Melanie: I think what's really interesting is that that detail is actually pretty central to his pitch. You go on his campaign website and when you have the “Meet Gabe” page, that's one of the most specific details that you see. And so I think that's because, probably really resonates with a lot of the voters who have these small business ties who probably have family-owned businesses of their own that they think of when they think of his grandfather's TV repair shop.
Gabe: It's that image, right? It is that, uh, value of hard work that I place on myself now as a candidate to say, “Hey, even if you're fixing TVs, right, in a, in a shop attached to your grandma's house, that that should give you an opportunity.” And so from the very beginning, that's the message that we've been selling people.
Gustavo: What's Gabe's pitch then to people in his district?
Melanie: I think that it's a, you know, a twofold pitch. One of the things, and this is not particularly surprising, is he's talking about the economy. And so I was out in Silver City with him when he was talking to voters,
Gabe: So with that, Gabe Vasquez, everyone!
Melanie: And the first thing he says is, you know, I believe in opportunity. I'm an example of the opportunity that my family has had, and I wanna make sure that other people can have this kind of opportunity.
Gabe: Now this country gave me that opportunity because my family sacrificed a lot for me to have that. That started with my grandfather, Javier Manuelos, who came from a little town in Zacatecas. A little rancho called El Remolino, “The Whirlwind,” and I could tell you his life was a whirlwind. When you got 10 kids, your life will be a whirlwind.
Melanie: And that's not really surprising, right? Because look at what the economy is like right now. And just generally, I think particularly for immigrant families, it's sort of the American dream story, right?
Gabe: And so because of their hard work and because of the opportunities that they've given me, uh, I feel an obligation and a duty to give back to this country, to this beautiful state that has given so many opportunities to me.
Melanie: What was fascinating though is that he's also talking a lot about abortion rights.
Gabe: Right now we have so much at stake, like women's healthcare rights, and I am such a proud supporter.
Melanie: When he's out on the trail, he talks about abortion, but it kind of is interesting to see when and where he does it. So for example, in Silver City, which is kind of this blue enclave in a red county in New Mexico, he's with the Democratic faithful and abortion – the abortion issue – is almost one of his big applause lines.
Gabe: And people say, Oh, well aren't you a Latino? Aren't you Catholic? Aren't you this, aren't you that? And I said, “Yeah, but I was raised right.”
Melanie: And he actually speaks directly to the fact that he is a Latino, that perhaps people would be a little surprised to see that a Latino male, would be talking about this issue. And I think it's a little bit of a pride that he leans so far into abortion. It's not something that he's afraid of talking about. And then there of course are advertisements, which are so direct. It’s not just a narrator saying in English or in Spanish talking about abortion. He is actually narrating. He comes out on screen. And so it really is him carrying this message. I actually showed that ad to somebody who's worked in the abortion rights space for a long time who is also Latina who told me that she had never seen the issue talked about so directly to Latinos in Spanish before. So that ad really stood out even to people who have been working in the space for a long time.
GUSTAVO: And that's what's really surprising to me…that Vasquez would run on abortion rights as a plank, because I mean, nearly all Latino Democratic Congress members support access to abortion. But I've never heard of a candidate campaign so prominently on the issue specifically to Latinos…because Latinos, you know, many of them are Catholic or socially conservative, at least we assume that they wouldn’t support abortion. So how much did the strategy of Vasquez surprise you?
Melanie: I think it surprised me a lot, and then as soon as I found out that it surprised me, it also kind of embarrassed me because I realized it was based on some assumptions, um, that I think were really outdated. And so once you started talking to Latino politicians, Latino pollsters, they would say, yes, I know that you're surprised, but you really shouldn't be. In fact, there have been polls for a long time that have shown that Latinos are generally supportive of abortion rights, particularly Catholic Latinos. But we really also saw that come to the fore after the Dobbs ruling. And Dobbs, of course, is the ruling that we saw over the summer that overturned Roe v. Wade, which was the 50-year precedent that set national protections for abortion rights. Right? We saw in polling that there was a kind of galvanization of people who are pro-abortion rights, and this included Latinos, particularly Latino Catholics. So the Dobbs ruling, I think, really crystallized, uh, people's feelings about protecting abortion rights. And I think that that gave politicians, particularly Democrats, a little bit more permission to talk about this issue and not feel so nervous about it, based on these old assumptions that they had about Latino voters.
GUSTAVO: Yeah, well, I'm a Latino Catholic and I also was surprised, so don't feel too bad, Melanie. But beyond that polling, what else would lead Democrats to abandon those old assumptions about Latinos and abortion, and then embrace that strategy?
Melanie: Well, I think that there's two factors. One is because, uh, they needed to, because there wasn't a ton left for them to try to appeal to these voters. There is so much anxiety among Democrats right now about what we've seen as this kind of drift to the right among Latinos. It varies in location. It varies by kind of a country of origin, but it's clear that Latinos sided with Trump at greater rates in 2020 than they did in 2016. I think Democrats are really nervous about the idea that they might be losing this coalition that they saw as really crucial to them being able to put together a winning ticket, either nationally or in some of these key states. And so knowing that abortion may be a window in maybe a way to stop some of that drift when they are losing ground on say, the economy or things like crime, I think that that gave Democrats a doorway and they were very happy to take it ‘cause truthfully they didn't have a lot else this cycle.
Gustavo: Coming up after the break, what does it look like when protecting abortion rights is the issue pushing Latinos to the polls?
Gustavo: So Melanie, you mentioned that with the overturning of Roe versus Wade, abortion now seems as a possible motivator for Latinos to go out and vote. But is there any evidence to show that it could be a winning strategy?
Melanie: Yes. We've seen this on the ground, and I think the biggest example was this, a referendum that we saw in Kansas.
AP: Kansas is holding the nation's first test of how voters feel about the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade
Melanie: This vote over the summer, a couple of weeks after the Dobbs ruling, was about, amending the state constitution in Kansas in order to allow for more abortion restrictions.
AP: The ballot measure would have removed protections for abortion rights from the Kansas constitution and given the legislature the right to further restrict or ban abortion.
Melanie: And this was so thoroughly rejected in Kansas. I think it took a lot of people by surprise.
AP: The margins against at nearly 20 percentage points, stunned abortion opponents and gave hope to abortion rights activists in other states / If it's gonna happen in Kansas, it's gonna happen in a whole lot of states.
Melanie: And look, Kansas isn't necessarily known for its gigantic Latino population, but we did see in the numbers that Latinos were among the groups that seemed to be very energized by that. They had an appreciable impact on the outcome in Kansas: 62% of Latinos who voted in that referendum were women, which is kind of a gender gap that we don't usually see. So clearly that shows that like a lot of other voting groups, Latinas are really activated by this issue.
Gustavo: So really, though, Kansas of all places is going to inspire the Democratic Party to try a new strategy to keep the Latino vote?
Melanie: Well look, at least you have some results there, right? When you actually have results, you see the vote, you see people turning out, that gives Democrats a little bit more faith that this might be a winning issue for them. We've seen this with Democrats nationwide in the ads that they're running, they've really been tilted towards the abortion issue. Both them talking about how they would protect abortion rights and also really hitting their opponents, whether they're incumbents or challengers for what they would do, with abortion bans. And we even saw President Biden say in a speech that that would be a top priority is enshrining Roe versus Wade into law.
Biden: The only sure way to stop these extremist laws that are putting in jeopardy women's health and rights is for Congress to pass a law. And I've said before the court got Roe right nearly 50 years ago and I believe Congress should codify Roe once and for all.
Melanie: So that is really kind of an explicit promise to voters. If you choose Democrats, then that will result in your abortion rights being protected. And I think that that is one of the things that they're banking on, is that Democrats need to sort of make that final pitch in order to get voters to come out and choose them.
Gustavo: Melanie, so you were saying that what happened in Kansas with an abortion referendum and the Latino response to it gave Democrats across the country a new idea about how to bring out the Latino vote, which again, I think is a fascinating premise. So how did you land on New Mexico as a place to test that?
Melanie: Well, so New Mexico is definitely not one of the states that we always think of when we think of battleground states, it is seen as a state that is typically pretty blue. But it is a really interesting state, first of all, because it is the most Latino state by percentage in the nation. And this district that we're looking at, New Mexico 2, is the most Latino district in the most Latino state in the nation. And so I thought that it was a really interesting opportunity to test this proposition where Latino voters were going to be essential, in any winning coalition for either party. The other thing that's interesting about New Mexico is that it's where it is positioned in the country, right? So it is next to Texas, which infamously imposed very strict abortion bans even before the Dobbs ruling. On it’s other side is Arizona, which the weekend that I was in the state, Arizona actually reverted back to this centuries old abortion ban. A judge ruled for that. So you had Arizona losing its abortion access the weekend that I was there. In fact, aside from Colorado, New Mexico was the only state in sort of the Southwest that is seen as kind of a quote unquote haven state for abortion access. And so you have people coming in from the neighboring states to get access to this procedure. In fact, when I was driving in from El Paso, which is the closest city to Las Cruces, where I started this reporting, you actually saw these billboards on the street. Once you crossed over the state line that said both in English and Spanish, you're now entering a state that protects abortion rights. So clearly they know that there are folks that are driving in with the express purpose of seeking out this medical procedure.
Gustavo: And for Gabe Vasquez then, how has that overturning of Roe versus Wade influenced his race in New Mexico?
Melanie: Well, he says that it's injected a lot of energy.
Gabe Vasquez: Yes we've seen tremendous energy post-ops in this district, particularly from women. And many who have come up to me and told me, “You know what? I thought this fight was decided. I thought we had already fought for this 50 years ago.”
Melanie: And I think that partially because it gave him something to not only pitch to voters, but to hammer his Republican opponent about.
Gabe Vasquez: And that's what I tell folks too, especially if they are Republican and Republicans are supposed to be for small government.
Melanie: And so I think that that gave him a point of contrast as opposed to talking about some of the other issues that the Republican wants to talk about, like the economy and crime.
Gustavo: And this district itself, District 2 down in Southern New Mexico. What's its importance nationally?
Melanie: What's interesting about New Mexico too is it's one of a few races that are considered to be a toss up in which generally people don't know if the Democrat or the Republican is going to win. And so since both the Republicans and the Democrats are battling so hard for control of Congress and Republicans really only need about five seats to capture control, this is one of those seats that could be pretty determinative because it's one of the few places where Democrats might be able to steal a seat back from Republicans. So as Democrats are looking for every opportunity that they can to stop from losing seats. New Mexico 2 offers one of those opportunities.
Gustavo: Yeah so if Gabe's strategy works there, then that could influence other candidates to do it elsewhere, especially when it comes to Latinos.
Gustavo: And then the Republican opponent of Gabe, how are they responding to abortion?
Melanie: Well, so the Republican is Congresswoman Yvette Harrell. So, like I said, she's a first-term congresswoman.
CROSSTALK: What do you see as the issues that you're hearing about from your constituents when you're out on the trail, um, and just what you want this race to be about? Yeah, so the district's changed a little bit and.
Melanie: And quite frankly, she would rather not talk about abortion much at all.
Yvette Harrell: Right now, I think people understand that social issues are important, but more importantly, the conversation tends to lean towards the economy.
Melanie: Now, she is a very strident, opponent of abortion rights. She has been her whole career as a state legislator and now in the Congress. This is something that Gabe Vasquez is bringing up quite a bit, but when I interviewed her, she wanted to talk about the economy.
Yvette Harrell: People are concerned about the cost of gas, you know, the cost of groceries, the cost of utilities, um, the inability to find a willing workforce.
Melanie: She wants to talk about crime. She wanted to talk about the border.
Yvette Harrell: The fentanyl coming across the southern border…
Melanie:These are kind of the typical issues that, quite frankly, we’re seeing from Republicans nationwide. When I asked her specifically about the abortion question, she kind of, uh, went to the states’ rights argument, which we've heard from some Republicans in blue states, which is, look, doesn't really matter here.
Yvette Harrell: You know, it's interesting because New Mexico already had laws on the books to allow abortion up to day of birth. So that's not different here
Melanie: I mean, in New Mexico they have a Democratic governor. They have a Democratic leading legislature. They have passed recent laws to enshrine abortion access. So it's not really an issue for New Mexico voters.
Yvette Harrell: You know, in New Mexico it's I think it's not as a prevalent conversation because of our state laws already, and certainly, um, that'll be kind of one of those national talking points that you just, at the end we'll have to see how much impact that will have on some of these races.
Melanie: That's when she would then pivot to these other issues such as the economy.
Gustavo: That’s so interesting because, geez, ever since Roe versus Wade, the Republican Party has been really trying to just overturn it on a federal level. So now they're saying like, Oh, it's just a states’ rights thing. So is Yvette's strategy of just focusing on the economy and just ignoring abortion almost completely, is that something that other Republicans are doubling down on nationwide for this election?
Melanie: It's definitely what we have seen. I think that there have been a lot of Republicans, particularly in blue states, like here in California, we've seen Republicans who, prior to the Dobbs ruling, had actually backed nationwide abortion bans in Congress. Now they're saying after the Dobbs ruling look, not our issue, go to your state capitals. It's not about Congress here. Now, of course, what we know is that there are, at least some members of Congress such as Sen. Lindsay Graham, who have floated the idea of national bands if Republicans retake Congress. So it's not like the issue is actually off the table, but we certainly are seeing that Republican candidates across the country are really trying to downplay the salience of the issue and focus more on these kitchen table issues, like the price of gas or inflation.
Gustavo: More after the break.
Gustavo: Melanie, you said earlier that Gabe Vasquez and Yvette Herrell who are competing against each other for a congressional seat down in New Mexico, that they have different ideas about how much abortion rights is going to impact their race. But what are the voters saying?
Melanie: I think that there's people that prove both theories of the case, but the woman that really stands out to me is this woman that I met in Mimbres, uh, New Mexico, which is also in the southern part of the state. This woman's name is Ruth Rodriguez. She's 80 years old, Latina, Catholic.
CROSSTALK: Do you live here in Mimbres? I do. And what's the, what's the politics here? Well, it's a lot of different people Yeah.
Melanie: And when I asked her what she thought was one of the biggest issues in the race, she immediately went to abortion
Ruth Rodriguez: Well, right now, I think, uh, abortion is like the biggest thing.
Melanie: And in fact said that she thought that Democrats would be in a lot of trouble if the abortion issue had not been raised after Dobbs.
Ruth Rodriguez: If they hadn't messed with it, you know, we would probably have a big, big problem.
Melanie: So what Ruth told me is, is that she is a Catholic. That she personally does not believe that abortion is a good thing. She thinks it goes against God's will.
Ruth Rodriguez: It's against God's will or whatever it is, maybe. But you know, you never know people's circumstances and so you say to yourself, OK, I'm not the judge. You know, I'm not the judge. So…
Melanie: But what she also told me is that she doesn't know what's going on in other people's lives. She doesn't think that it's her position to judge other people.
Ruth Rodriguez: I don't, I don't mess with anybody or say anything, you know? ‘Cause you never know what the situation is gonna be or what it's gonna be.
Melanie: And nor should it be the government's job to judge other people. And I think that that again, really encapsulates what were some of these assumptions about Latino Catholics versus the reality, which is that yes, many Latino Catholics have faith. They do not like abortion as part of their faith. But it doesn't necessarily translate into wanting to see the government impose their values on other people. Uh, and Ruth, I thought was a really interesting personification of that.
Gustavo: Yeah. Do you think she's emblematic nationwide or is she just an outlier?
Melanie: I don't think she's an outlier because I think that we have seen in polling that Latinos are paying attention to the abortion issue. The interesting thing about this though, is that sometimes even in the same poll, we will see data that will point us in different directions. So for example, there is this NBC poll not too long ago where Latino voters were asked to rank what were the most important issues, and abortion was not that high on the list. But then another question asked, if you knew a candidate's position on certain issues, would that single issue determine how you're gonna vote? And abortion was the No. 1 issue with 25% of voters saying that they would determine their vote just based on somebody's position on abortion. So all of which is to say is that voters like all of us, we are complex people. Sometimes we're not super consistent in how we are feeling about any particular issue. It's very hard to parse out polls. But I think talking to people like Ruth show us that there is certainly something that is compelling about this abortion question.
Ruth Rodriguez: And women, women have to say, Stop it already, bunch of men, but making decisions for us women. What the heck? Get rid of these guys. You know?
Melanie: The question I think, for Democrats, particularly in these final weeks of the election, is, is that more compelling than some of these other major issues like the economy, like crime, et cetera.
Gustavo: Yeah, this is all fascinating, especially how it's happening right now. And you alluded to this earlier because Democrats trying to get more Latino votes, it's a conversation that we shouldn't be having. This is a group that has gone Democrat, gone blue for decades. And at the same time, the Republican Party has been very strident with its rhetoric against immigration and invasions from the borders. And yet all we've been hearing about this election cycle is that Latinos are leaving the Democrats, might go Republican in a way that they never have outside of Cubans in Florida.
Melanie: Right. And I think that still there's a lot of haze of trying to interpret what we saw in 2020, which, remember, was a weird election in a lot of ways, not least of which, because it was happening in the middle of a global pandemic. But I think that a lot of people are trying to take that example and say, Is this a trajectory or is this a one-off? The truth is, is that Latino voters, though they have generally, been backing Democrats for a long time, there has been kind of an ebb and flow that we have seen. For example, George Bush in 2004 got like 40% of Latino vote when he was running for president. So it's not unheard of for Latinos to back Republicans. But I think that what people are surprised by is that particularly in the Trump era, we've seen such vicious rhetoric about immigrants, anti-Latino rhetoric, that you would think that that would be enough to sort of repel Latinos from the party. And that's not what we've seen. I will also say that the Republican Party has stepped up its outreach. I think they realize that there's opportunity in a way that perhaps they didn't before. In fact, in this district, in New Mexico too, it is the only district in the country where the Republican National Committee has opened up two Hispanic community centers. So they actually have this, like, very deliberate outreach to Latino voters. And you can see that in where they're allocating resources and what they're doing on the ground.
Gustavo: Finally, Melanie, if this strategy could work for Latino voters, in other words, hitting on abortion rights, might it work for everyone else for the Democrats?
Melanie: I think that's still very much tbd and I guess we'll find out in a couple weeks because it did seem like over the summer when the Dobbs ruling was really fresh and the state houses afterwards, this like this run of abortion bans that we saw, particularly in conservative state houses in response to Dobbs. It just seemed like it was in the headlines all the time, and so people were pretty angry, for lack of a better term, and I think very energized by it. The headlines have faded a little bit and the economic picture has gotten a little hazier. And so I do think that there's this question of, will this be enough for Democrats, both with Latino voters and voters overall to push them over the finish line? And I think the last couple of weeks, they're feeling a little nervous about it. But to me as a political reporter, one of the biggest takeaways for this is that, so long we talk about Latinos as their own sort of unique voting bloc, right? And how can we get in the mind of Latino voters? It's a special thing. But the truth is that Latino voters have performed much like other voters on this issue.
Women are more activated about this than men, younger voters are more activated about this than older voters. And I think that one of the things that this issue told us is let's get away from maybe some sort of lazy stereotypes about culture and get into the fact that Latino voters, much like white voters, Black voters, Asian voters, what have you, are just as complicated as any other voting bloc and both parties should approach 'em that way.
Gustavo: In other words, Latinos are human beings. What a concept.
Gustavo: Melanie, thank you so much for this conversation.
Melanie: Thank you.
Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of The Times Essential News from the L.A. Times. Shannon Lin and Kasia Broussalian were the hefas on this episode and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it. Our show's produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto, Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany, and our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.
I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadres. Gracias.