Inside the machine to turn out Arizona Latinos — and flip the state blue

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PHOENIX — Armed with a mask and face shield, Lucia Salinas has been knocking on doors in the sweltering heat here for months, urging Arizonans to vote — and vote Democrat. During the summer, Salinas would hit 90 doors a day. In the final stretch, as early voting is underway, she’s down to about 40.

On this day, Salinas, 41, a Mexican immigrant, passed off her own ballot to a mail man on her rounds. Early on in the pandemic, Salinas was laid off from her hospitality job and for those long four months she “felt homeless,” even though she had a place to stay. Both Salinas and her mother are diabetic and they’ve had to ration medicine and rely on food banks. And some days, she was forced to scrounge around for metals and cans to trade in for cash.

“There was no income coming in,” said Salinas, who will soon return to work as a cook. “Trump knew [coronavirus] was coming and he didn’t do nothing to help our community. He just let it happen.”

Salinas is one of hundreds of union members working alongside a coalition of grassroots Latino groups that make up an expansive field operation in Arizona on the Democratic side — the likes of which the state has never seen until now. They’re planning to knock on 800,000 doors. Door knocking, they say, is a critical component of rallying Latino voters.

And if Democratic nominee Joe Biden is going to hit 70 percent support among Arizona Latinos, a percentage most say he needs, it will be because of Unite Here, the union representing Arizona hospitality workers like Salinas, and grassroots groups like the Latino-run LUCHA.

A Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won the state in more than 20 years. But Democrats are hopeful that as more Latinos become politically active here — animated by battles against the anti-undocumented immigrant SB1070 bill and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio who illegally profiled Latino — this year could be the year the Republican grip on Arizona breaks. Right now, Biden is leading in Arizona. But on the ground, most Democrats , say the race is a toss-up.

“We’ve never truly been a swing state,” said Juliana Manzanarez, 29, a Phoenix-based immigration attorney. “If we’re going to turn blue, then this is the election we’ll turn blue. I don’t know that it’s going to happen in another four years.”

Manzanerez and her colleague Carina Guillen, a Dreamer and activist, were joining a “Todos Con Biden y Harris” literature drop last weekend in Phoenix.

“I don’t think there would have been this kind of energy [in Arizona] had Donald Trump not been president,” said Manzanarez, articulating what many pollsters have said. Trump served as an accelerant in a changing Arizona. Many activists and strategists question whether it would be in play had a vastly different kind of Republican won.

This year is the big test: Is Arizona flippable? And what role will Latinos, who are predominantly of Mexican origin, play in making it happen? They were key to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema’s statewide win in the 2018 Senate race. And the Biden campaign has made it clear they are central to its success as well.

Coronavirus has made the outreach harder, local Latino electeds and organizers say, but the impact of the pandemic is motivating voters. Latinos in Arizona have represented a disproportionate number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the state.

But Alejandra Gomez, co-executive director of the Latino mobilization group LUCHA, believes face-to-face interaction with Hispanic voters will be crucial, despite the limitations posed by the pandemic. Her group plans to knock on doors up until the last minute possible on Election Day. LUCHA endorsed Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary but since his loss, the group has rallied behind Biden. And Gomez said she’s seen a level of focus from the Biden campaign that didn’t exist with Democrats during prior election cycles.

“We have seen more than we have seen any other cycle, but we haven’t seen nearly what gets put into swing voters,” said Gomez. “Latinos are not a given.”

Unite Here and LUCHA are part of the grassroots MiAZ coalition, which formed in 2018 and has steadily ramped up its outreach over the past two years. Now, their goal is to door knock until polls close on Election Day.


Unite Here is focused on Democratic turnout, while groups like LUCHA are still working to convince voters who might identify as independents or neutral in the final days. As of late last week, Unite Here had hit more than 500,000 doors. LUCHA aims to hit 56,000 by Tuesday.

As Gomez snaked through a diverse, working-class neighborhood in northwest Phoenix, she was unfazed by voters who expressed disillusionment with the voting system. She and other volunteers are encouraging voters to fill out their ballots on the spot, to not delay as the final day nears.

Alejandro Arevalo, 32, took Gomez up on the offer to answer questions as he filled out his mail ballot. Reemerging from his house, ballot in hand, Arevalo beamed, “I just got citizenship and this is my first time.”

Arevalo’s brother, who also lives in Arizona, contracted coronavirus. For a moment, it looked like he wasn’t going to beat the disease but he ultimately survived. “We need to have better management on the Covid, said Arevalo. “It’s out of control. People are dying.”

Arevalo came to the United States from Colombia and is one of a number of Latinos in Arizona who are voting for the first time. More than 14 percent of Latinos who have voted early did not vote in 2016, according to data from the Democatic firm TargetSmart.

Edwin Arredondo, a Mexican-American digital organizer with Poder Latinx in Arizona, is the only person in his family who is able to vote. The Latino-run group, formed in the last year, focused on registering and mobilizing Latinos and other voters of color.

Arredondo backed Sanders in the primary. But now he’s backing Biden.

“I’m the product of undocumented parents. My brother and my sister are both DACA recipients. I am fortunate enough to have been born here,” said Arredondo.

“I speak for all of my family and the biggest, the closest thing to my heart is immigration and a pathway to citizenship for my brother and my sister.”

Kristin Urquiza became known after sharing the story of her father’s death from Covid-19 at the Democratic National Convention. After her father, an Arizona resident, died earlier this year, Urquiza quickly and forcefully pinned the blame on Trump.

“He believed him and his mouthpieces when they said coronavirus was under control and going to disappear,” she said at the time. “He trusted Donald Trump and for that he paid with his life.”

Now, as the election wraps up, Urquiza is spending her time in Arizona mobilizing Latinos. calling voters and cutting videos for candidates.

Urquiza said her mother, who lives in Arizona and voted for Trump in 2016, is backing Biden. “With my dad passing and the subsequent information that this was preventable that’s what caused her to switch her vote,” said Urquiza, who is of Mexican descent.

But Democrats aren’t alone in their outreach to Latinos. Trump’s campaign has tried to win over Latinos at the edges, particularly men.

Trump’s campaign spent $3.1 million on Spanish-language TV ads in total this year compared with $4.2 million by the Biden campaign, according to ad tracker Advertising Analytics. Trump’s campaign also has three Latino for Trump offices in Phoenix, Yuma and Tucson.

Despite Trump’s cash disadvantage, his team is bullish on the president’s ability to grow his 2016 numbers with Latinos. “The president’s support is growing, especially as we get closer and closer,” said Keith Schipper, spokesperson for the Trump Victory campaign, a merged field operation between the Republican National Committee and the Trump team. Schipper didn’t provide internal data.

Most recent polling shows Trump below the 31 percent of Latino support he received in 2016. Earlier this month, a poll conducted for the Democratic Latino-run Equis Research found Biden receiving 71 percent of the Latino vote in a two-way race with Trump in Arizona, excluding third-party options.

And The New York Times/Siena’s final poll of Arizona released Sunday found Biden at 66 percent support among Latinos, compared with Trump’s 26 percent. (Seven percent refused to answer or supported the third party Libertarian candidate.)

As Trump’s campaign tries to encroach on Democratic strongholds like Pima County, Biden’s campaign paid extra attention to the region in the final week. Latino turnout in Tucson is central to Biden’s play for the state. His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, visited the city last week, meeting with Latina business owners.

Some pollsters have speculated that if Biden doesn’t reach 70 percent support among Latinos, he could still win the state with a whiter coalition — an idea most Latino Democrats in Arizona have scoffed at.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said the 70 percent support among Latinos is the “important number” for Democrats.

“If Biden hits the 70 percent,” she said, “then he’s going to win the state.”

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