Hispanics fail to win Hispanic Congressional districts

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 18, 2013 · 9:00 AM EST

One year ago, Democratic state Sen. Ruben Kihuen declared himself the best candidate to represent a newly-drawn, Hispanic-heavy congressional district in North Las Vegas. Thirteen days later, he dropped out of the race.

Even though a record number of Latinos are serving in the 113th Congress, Hispanic candidates are significantly underperforming in heavily Hispanic districts, particularly compared to other minority groups.

Nationwide, just 41 percent of congressional districts (24 of 58) with a Hispanic voting age population (VAP) of at least 30 percent are represented by a Hispanic member of Congress. In comparison, 72 percent of districts (32 of 44) with a black VAP of at least 30 percent are represented by a black member.

Why can’t Latinos get elected to Latino congressional districts?

In the case of Nevada’s 1st District, party politics was to blame.

Last January, Kihuen was in town as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s guest for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, and Kihuen looked like the chosen candidate for Congress. Hispanics made up 37 percent of the voting age population in the district, and they would have been an even higher percentage of the Democratic primary electorate.

But party leaders pressured Kihuen to drop out of the race and pave the way for Dina Titus, an Anglo former congresswoman seeking a comeback bid. Democratic strategists believed a divisive primary could depress Hispanic turnout in the general election and hurt both the party’s chances of winning the U.S. Senate seat and President Barack Obama’s chances of winning Nevada and getting re-elected.

Nevada wasn’t the only place last cycle where the party establishment backed a non-Hispanic candidate in a Hispanic district.

In Texas’ 33rd, party leaders supported African-American state Rep. Marc Veasey over former state Rep. Domingo Garcia in a Dallas-area district that is 61 Hispanic and just 17 percent black. It helped that black voters outnumbered Latino voters in the primary, runoff, and general elections, according to analysis by the Lone Star Project. In Texas’ 34th, party leaders supported longtime Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D), even though his newly-drawn district is 59 percent Hispanic.

Another challenge is turnout. As the race in Texas 33 showed, the Hispanic percentage of a district’s population can overstate the strength of the Latino electorate, because Latinos don’t vote in the same numbers as other minority groups. In some cases, savvy Latino candidates don’t even run because they know the opportunity isn’t as good as it looks on paper.

Former Assemblyman Hector de la Torre was mentioned as a potential candidate in California’s 44th District, which boasts a whopping 64 percent Hispanic VAP, but he hardly gave it a thought. “It’s the voting numbers, not the population,” he explained early last year. “It’s actually not that ripe.”

De la Torre believed the district might be more favorable to a Hispanic candidate later in the decade as the Latino population grows, gets older, and becomes more likely to vote. In the short-term, he expected the black population to dominate (even though it is just 19 percent of the VAP) because the community was better organized. In the end, Anglo Rep. Janice Hahn (D) won the district over African-American Rep. Laura Richardson (D), in large part because Hahn was a superior candidate who ran the better campaign.

De la Torre wasn’t the only Hispanic candidate to pass on a newly-drawn Hispanic seat last cycle. Rep. Joe Baca (D) saw his congressional district divided during redistricting, but instead of running in the competitive 31st District with a 44 percent Hispanic (where he would have faced tough general election competition), he opted for the more Democratic 35th District with a 65 percent Hispanic VAP. But he lost the race to Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod. The two Democrats are likely to face off again in 2014.

In some districts, sizable Hispanic populations are faced off against African-American populations, and when that happens, the black candidate almost always prevails.

Five out of six congressional districts that have both Hispanic and black populations of at least 30 percent each are represented by black Members, including Florida’s 24th and Texas’ 9th, 18th, and 30th districts. New York’s 13th District is 53 Hispanic and 33 percent black but longtime African-American Rep. Charlie Rangel prevailed over state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, 44 percent to 42 percent, in the multi-candidate Democratic primary. The only district that bucks the trend is New York’s 15th District where Rep. Jose Serrano (D) represents a population that is 37 black and 64 percent Hispanic.

But even when Hispanics dominate a district, sometimes it isn’t enough to secure a Latino victory. Nine districts with over 50 percent Latino VAP are represented by non-Latinos. Just two districts with a black VAP of at least 50 percent are represented by non-black Members.

For example, Texas’ 16th District is now represented by Beto O’Rourke after he defeated longtime Rep. Silvestre Reyes in the Democratic primary last year, even though the seat is 78 Hispanic.

Until Latino voters get more organized and start voting with more frequency, simply citing the population figures of a district can lead to misleading analysis.