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Latinx Voters key to Dems flipping Central Valley seats & keeping U.S. House

Irene Kao is executive director of Courage California, a statewide progressive organization uniting communities for progressive change, to fight corruption, and press elected officials “to act with courage on behalf of all Californians.” Hatzune Aguilar is director of strategic engagement for Communities for a New California, which is working across California to end “the stealing, excluding and exploiting people of color.”

In the 1960s, the Central Valley birthed the United Farm Workers, whose organizing leadership continues to define California. Yet politically, the region overall has long been miscast as a moderate monolith. This led to a lack of significant investments in Central Valley communities – especially Latinx communities – by Democrats. Consequently, the region has for too long been represented at the state and national level by Republicans and by Democrats who vote like Republicans, which is anything but representative of its constituents.

But thanks to redistricting, the 2022 elections present a golden opportunity for Democrats to flip two Republican-held Central Valley Congressional seats and help retain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. However to do so requires the Democratic Party to focus on and invest properly in Latinx voters and support a wave of younger, progressive Latinx Democrats running for state offices. This is because Latinxs are now the largest voting population in the newly drawn Congressional districts 21 (53%) and 22 (59%), and Latinas, in particular, generally vote at higher rates than Latinos.

For these reasons, most rate these Congressional districts as at least Democratic leaning. Plus, recent polling by Courage California and Communities for a New California found that CD21 and CD22 voters are more likely to self-identify as liberal (36% in CD21, 42% in CD22) than moderate (35% in CD21, 34% in CD22) or conservative (29% in CD21, 23% in CD22). In CD22 in particular, Latinx voters are more likely to identify as liberal (52%) than white (32%) or Black (26%) voters.

This means for Democrats to win and then hold the districts long-term, they must build on more clearly liberal issues and not stick in the center straddling Republican and corporate-backed centrist views. This approach will likely result in the continued ping-ponging of the seat between parties, like we’ve seen with CD22. In 2016, incumbent Republican David Valadao was re-elected despite the district voting solidly for Hillary Clinton. In 2018, he lost narrowly to moderate Dem T.J. Cox, but then won it back – again narrowly – in 2020 despite the district going solidly for Joe Biden.

Additionally, the news polling found most voters in this region are planning to vote in the June 7 primary election (74% in CD21 and 83% of CD22), and an overwhelming majority encourage their kids, relatives, family, and other community members to vote (76% in CD21, 82% in CD22). However, the majority do not know who is running to be their future Congressional representative (66% in CD21, 71% in CD22). This underscores the need for the Democratic Party to invest more to communicate both the “who” and the “why” about these important elections.

In CD21, conservative Democratic incumbent Jim Costa is being challenged by progressive Democrat Eric Garcia and two Republicans. In CD22, current Assemblymember Rudy Salas is the lone Democrat challenging Republican incumbent David Valadao, who is also facing two Republican candidates. Both Costa and Salas have voting records that are anti-environment and pro-incarceration, and have taken significant campaign contributions from industries like oil and gas. Costa has also received contributions from a PAC supporting Republican candidates and associated with Koch industries, which actively opposes environmental legislation.

While these seats are important for Democrats to hold the House, Courage California and Communities for a New California see the future of progressive Central Valley leadership elsewhere, such as Bryan Osorio, Mayor of Delano and candidate for State Senate District 16, and Esmeralda Soria, Fresno City Councilmember and candidate for State Assembly District 27. Osorio and Soria are deeply rooted in their communities and their priorities more closely mirror what Central Valley voters care about. Their candidacies have greater potential to motivate voters to turn out and work directly with communities as they govern.

Polling results also confirm what Communities for a New California and other Central Valley leaders have known and stressed: the region is key for Democrats to build greater state and national power. More to the point, Democrats would be wise to invest in engaging and turning out Latina voters, and well beyond the midterm elections. A number of polling and focus groups conducted throughout the state, including ours, have found that Latinas are more civically engaged and influential in their households and networks, as compared to their Latino counterparts.

But Democrats should be careful. Not just any Democratic candidate (Latinx or otherwise) will be enough to inspire Central Valley Latina voters to vote and turn out their communities. This voter category is personally experiencing the economic fallout of the pandemic, bleak job opportunities, a housing crisis that is pushing their families out of their homes, and the climate change crisis in the form of toxic drinking water and pervasive health issues (from fires, drought, and pesticides use). The road to elected office in the Central Valley requires candidates committed to addressing these issues, and not just trying to win by appealing solely on a shared identity and general values, as too many Democrats currently do.

If Democrats only focus on winning a seat and not how that elected should work with Central Valley communities once they are in office, they’ll lose the trust of voters and have to keep starting from square one each time.

It’s time for Democrats to stop taking Central Valley voters – especially Latina voters – for granted and invest in engagement for the long-term. The Central Valley is not only the pathway to retaining control of the House of Representatives, it’s the pathway to sustaining lasting and real change led by progressive leaders and voters in the region. Any party or leader who ignores this does so at their own peril.

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