Persuading Latinos to vote Republican in the year of Trump
On the Fourth of July, Sergio Arellano dragged himself out of bed before sunrise and pulled on baggy jeans and a T-shirt that read
REPUBLICAN ACTION TEAM. As the strategic initiatives director for the Arizona Republican Party, Arellano is responsible for Latino outreach, and he was headed for Nogales, a border town whose population of 20,000 is overwhelmingly Latino and Democratic. In other words, he was going into enemy territory to promote Donald Trump, Senator John McCain (who is seeking a sixth term), and several other Republican candidates running for local office. Latinos make up 31 percent of Arizona’s population. That number is growing so rapidly that many think it’s only a matter of time before what was once a solidly red state shades purple and then turns blue. It is Arellano’s job to prevent this from happening.
The festivities in Nogales kicked off with a 10 a.m. parade through the center of town. The Republican float — a flatbed trailer festooned with patriotic bunting and placards — was sandwiched between the county sheriff in a vintage pickup and a group of cyclists. Arellano walked alongside the float, tossing out fistfuls of taffy and slapping high-fives with anyone who looked friendly. Thirty-two years old, Arellano served two tours as an infantryman in Iraq, where he survived an IED blast, and little seems to faze him. He relished the double takes in the crowd as the float rolled past. As he waved and shook hands, he asked aloud, “Do you see a Democratic Party float here, man?”
Nogales is the type of place where Arellano needs to make inroads. Its surrounding county hasn’t elected a Republican to the board of supervisors in 36 years, but over the same period, Democratic turnout has declined. For these reasons, Arellano insisted the Arizona Republican Party enter a float in the parade and urged the state chairman, Robert Graham, to come down from Phoenix to take part.
Over the past two years, Arellano has showed up in places where Republicans rarely go — towns with Latino majorities like Rio Rico, Yuma, and Douglas. “People look at my sign,” he told me, “and say, ‘Republican? Aren’t you lost?’ And I’m like, ‘Nah, dude, we’re not lost. We know where we’re at.’ Most of them will walk by, but some will start engaging and talking.” Arellano has hosted neighborhood fiestas, handed out Thanksgiving turkeys, and started an internship program at the state GOP headquarters. He’s credited with helping Republican Martha McSally in her 2014 upset victory for Congress — she won by 167 votes — and his work has caught the attention of Republican leaders in Phoenix and Washington.
Then came Donald Trump and his promise to build the wall, and Arellano’s job suddenly got a lot harder. In most polls, 80 percent of Latinos say they oppose the man who’s acquired the nickname Don Trampa. (“Trampa” roughly translates to trickster.) Many observers believe that the Republican Party could lose the Latino vote for a generation in much the same way that California Governor Pete Wilson’s anti-immigrant ballot measures in the 1990s galvanized Latinos to reject the California Republican Party and support Democrats in overwhelming numbers. “Sure, it’s worrisome,” Arellano told me as folks came up to greet him. “It’s concerning. But guess what? That’s why we’re out here.”
After the parade, Arellano shepherded Graham and several Republican candidates to a Spanish-language radio station for interviews. Then he drove to a city park that was hosting a Fourth of July festival. The party was a sponsor of the event, and his volunteers had strung a huge GOP banner at the base of the stage where musical acts would perform.
Arellano seemed to know everyone. He introduced Graham to local businesspeople. He stopped and chatted with police officers and city council members, switching fluidly between English and Spanish. He had persuaded the festival’s headliner, the Mexican-American R&B star Frankie J, to sign autographs at the Republican tent. “It took an act of God to even get him here,” Arellano told me. No one could walk more than a few feet without seeing a red Arizona Republican Party balloon floating overhead.
At one point, a Democratic volunteer wandered over to compliment Arellano. His tent, she said, was way more fun than hers. The Democrats’ idea of a good time was raffling off a papier-mâché piñata of Trump. Still, the Democrats were signing up a steady stream of prospective voters. Filling out the registration form outside their tent, a young woman with a toddler on her hip paused at the section that required her to declare her party preference. She looked up and asked, “Which party is Trump?” Republican, someone replied. She checked the Democratic box.
“It is an uphill battle,” Arellano told me. “People say that Hispanics hate Republicans. They don’t hate anybody. You just have some activists that are really inflammatory. Unfortunately, those are the people who get the airtime.”
He was already planning to return to Nogales to organize for McCain and other down-ticket Republicans. What about Trump? Arellano was supporting him (“I’m backing anybody but Hillary”), but for a moment, his relentless optimism gave way. Trump had created a quandary for him, and he couldn’t help but shake his head. “If you’d told me two years ago that we’d be in this situation we’re in now,” he said, “I would’ve laughed and told you you’re wearing a tinfoil hat.”