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A new House seat has big Latino voting power. It may be little comfort to Democrats

Sonny Subia, a volunteer with the League of United Latin American Citizens, introduces Michael Schneider, FBI special agent in charge, to a group largely composed of Latino middle and high school students in Greeley, Colo., on Jan. 28.
AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
Sonny Subia, a volunteer with the League of United Latin American Citizens, introduces Michael Schneider, FBI special agent in charge, to a group largely composed of Latino middle and high school students in Greeley, Colo., on Jan. 28.

Sonny Subia is one of those people who seems to know most people around town and is trying to meet all the rest. At a restaurant in Greeley, Colo., last month, he was chatting with a stranger at the bar who was celebrating his 21st birthday.

The restaurant owner is a friend, who Subia noted is "as right-wing as you can get."

"I have friends all the way on the right and all the way on the left. And you just have to around northern Colorado," Subia said.

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Subia is a school expulsion officer, and in his spare time, he's the volunteer Colorado state director for LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens.

He's also a committed Democrat. And he's worried.

"This congressional district is the largest Latino population of any district in the state — and it's a toss-up," he said, exasperated. "How is that? It just doesn't make sense."

Sonny Subia is a school expulsion officer. In his spare time, he's the volunteer Colorado state director for LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens.
/ AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
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AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
Sonny Subia is a school expulsion officer. In his spare time, he's the volunteer Colorado state director for LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens.

That district is Colorado's 8th, which stretches from Denver's northern suburbs up to the more-conservative area around Greeley, a 45-minute drive away. It is a new district in the wake of the 2020 census, and it's the most heavily Latino in the state at nearly 40%. Expected to be one of the country's closest congressional races in November, it's also an area that reflects key national trends that could shape the midterm elections.

Subia is reflecting anxiety that is felt throughout the Democratic Party over its standing with Latino voters after Republican gains in 2020.

A development takes shape in January in Thornton, Colo., with the Rocky Mountains in the distance.
/ AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
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AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
A development takes shape in January in Thornton, Colo., with the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

"This 8th seems like such a different race, but it actually represents where all the growth has really been in every city around America, where you have this booming Latino population outside of Charlotte, Philly, Atlanta, and you can just go on down the line," said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who is working with 8th District candidate Chaz Tedesco.

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National political trends obscure local concerns

On the whole, the Latino voting-age population in the U.S. is more Democratic, younger, less likely to be registered to vote and faster-growing than the U.S. population as a whole. But what it means to be a Latino voter is particular to any given place.

Because living in Colorado's 8th means living in a fast-growing area, housing is a big issue.

State Rep. Yadira Caraveo, who has served as a Colorado state representative since 2018, is running for Congress in Colorado's 8th Congressional District.
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AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
State Rep. Yadira Caraveo, who has served as a Colorado state representative since 2018, is running for Congress in Colorado's 8th Congressional District.

"It's getting increasingly more expensive, and it's changed a lot in the last 20 years," said Yadira Caraveo, a pediatrician and Democratic candidate. "And so, you know, parents talk to me all the time about how many jobs they're working to be able to afford to live here, how much their rent costs."

That topic of affordability also came up with voters.

At a meeting of local businesspeople, financial planner Emilio Valdez said the cost of living in the area has accelerated.

"You take a look at my daughter, for instance. Her and her husband just bought a house and they paid a half a million for it," he said. "And when that house sold eight years ago, it was $230,000. So, you know, a big difference in what the housing prices are doing."

Emilio Valdez (center) speaks with congressional candidate Erik Aadland at Rails End Beer Co. on Jan. 28. Valdez, a Republican voter, said he likes to know what candidates stand for before signing petitions in support of them.
/ AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
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AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
Emilio Valdez (center) speaks with congressional candidate Erik Aadland at Rails End Beer Co. on Jan. 28. Valdez, a Republican voter, said he likes to know what candidates stand for before signing petitions in support of them.

Valdez is a Republican, and he came out to see Jan Kulmann, a GOP candidate and the mayor of Thornton, one of the Denver suburbs contained in the 8th District.

Sitting at a coffeehouse in the development of Reunion, Kulmann noted how quickly the suburban development had expanded.

"None of this was here just a few years ago," she said, gesturing to an area next to a small lake outside the window.

That means many of the voters these candidates are trying to reach in this new district are also new to the area. "Every year that I'm knocking on doors and talking to new people, it's always new voters over and over again," Kulmann said. "So I think the bigger challenge is really making sure that they know that there's another election coming, because it feels like there's one every single year because there is one."

There's plenty of room to grow the electorate here. A Colorado Sun analysis found that the 8th has the lowest share of active, registered voters of any district in the state.

Much of the 8th has for the last decade been a Republican-leaning district, represented by Ken Buck. The new district's competitiveness may be one way to get voters enthused, says Subia.

"Once we can go out and inform the people around northern Colorado that, 'Hey, this is a totally new ballgame. We're in a new game and we can win this,' once we start doing that — we got to do it now because it's coming around the corner, and it comes fast," he said.

Economic concerns go beyond finding a job

That means motivating people who don't always vote, like Alfredo Gonzalez. He's a cook at a hotel, and an independent who didn't vote in 2020. So what does he need to hear from candidates this year?

"Well, for our documents, you know," he said, "to be in this country legally."

But he also said that the economy is his top issue — even while he personally isn't suffering.

"In fact, I have a good job. I'm doing fine. I mean, what matters is me having a job and security," he said.

The hustle and bustle of Commerce City, Colo., unfolds in the foreground as Colorado's Rocky Mountains stand tall in the distance.
/ AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
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AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
The hustle and bustle of Commerce City, Colo., unfolds in the foreground as Colorado's Rocky Mountains stand tall in the distance.

The tension between having employment and being concerned about the economy has been readily visible throughout the district lately. "Help wanted" signs abound — and so have labor strikes. Workers at local supermarket chain King Soopers were demonstrating in recent weeks, demanding better pay, benefits and conditions (the strike ended with the ratification of a new contract).

The so-called working class — blue-collar, pink-collar and other service-industry workers in jobs that often don't require a college degree — has been slipping from the Democrats to the Republican Party in recent years.

Republican strategist Mike Madrid says that winning more of those voters will mean winning over Latino voters.

There is hope in the GOP that Democrats' advantage is slipping. Donald Trump won only around 3 in 10 Latino voters in 2016, but nearly 4 in 10 in 2020 — right around George W. Bush's 2004 high-water mark.

Madrid says the GOP made those gains, in part, by getting away from Trump's racist 2016 messaging.

"All they need to do is get out of their own way and continue articulating their own populist economic messages that are resonating with white, non-college educated workers, because they are increasingly working with Latino, non-college educated workers," Madrid said.

To Kulmann, connecting to the Latino community in the district means speaking to the issues that young families have. That means speaking to the economy, the pandemic and COVID's effects on schools.

"What you see particularly in Thornton with the Latino community, is you have two working parents — and we have that in my family as well, two working parents," she said. "And so every time a school is shut down, a parent has to stay home and they can't go to their job because not everybody can work remotely in their job. And so the frustration I'm hearing from working families is that they can't stay home anymore with their kids."

Chaz Tedesco, who serves on the Adams County Commission, asks for a petition signature from neighbor Ryan Goff as he canvasses on Jan. 29. Tedesco is running for Colorado's 8th Congressional District.
/ AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
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AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
Chaz Tedesco, who serves on the Adams County Commission, asks for a petition signature from neighbor Ryan Goff as he canvasses on Jan. 29. Tedesco is running for Colorado's 8th Congressional District.
Tedesco canvasses his neighborhood on a Saturday.
/ AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
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AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
Tedesco canvasses his neighborhood on a Saturday.

And there is an ongoing battle over which is the party of working families. Candidate Chaz Tedesco believes that Democrats are that party, but that they need to do a better job communicating it.

"I want to make sure that when we look at legislation and when we put legislation in, that it has a clear and defined direction toward working families, and we can outline that, we can express that, we can explain that," he said.

But it's not just about what the candidates here say; politics are increasingly nationalized. And while President Biden has been trying to portray his party as the party of American workers, organizer Sonny Subia in Greeley says he needs more results before November's election.

"I voted for Biden. I listen to Biden and it's like, wait a minute. You can't even get your own party to back your plans," he said. "How are you going to motivate me to go out and recruit and get people to vote and talk to my family?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Two people sit in the foreground as Colorado's Rocky Mountains stand tall in the distance of Westminster, Colo., on Jan. 29.
/ AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
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AAron Ontiveroz for NPR
Two people sit in the foreground as Colorado's Rocky Mountains stand tall in the distance of Westminster, Colo., on Jan. 29.