WASHINGTON – Misael Avila has tried everything to convince his Latino community in central California to care more about politics. He has led voter-registration drives around Modesto. He's personally knocked on voters' doors. He has even hosted a congressional debate at his Catholic church.
It hasn't been easy.
"Unfortunately, there's a lot of apathy about these things," he said. "For some reason, people are not engaged."
Avila is the pastor of St. Frances of Rome Catholic church in California's 10th Congressional District — an area considered by both parties to be a major battleground in the race to control the U.S. House of Representatives. And although his work is nonpartisan, the "apathy" he describes among Hispanic voters is a major challenge for Democrats with Election Day less than eight weeks away.
The party's liberal base is energized and infuriated, motivated by a deep antipathy to President Donald Trump. But enthusiasm runs deepest among an electoral bloc that is mostly white, female and affluent. To maximize their gains — they need to flip 23 GOP seats to take the House — Democrats need voters of color to show up.
"There is no blue wave in November 2018 without black or brown people," said Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist.
Democrats struggled to get voters of color to vote in midterm elections during the Obama era, when black and Latino participation (along with that of young voters) dropped sharply relative to higher-turnout presidential elections. The drop-off was at least partly responsible for the deep losses the party suffered in 2010 (when Democrats lost the House) and 2014 (when Democrats lost the Senate).
The problem has been obscured this election cycle in part because Democratic turnout has been exceptionally high during a series of special House elections But, critically, one Democratic strategist familiar with those races said that the biggest drivers of Democratic enthusiasm were white, college-educated voters, young people, and politically engaged Democrats. (The exception appears to be the Alabama Senate special election, where Democrat Doug Jones won an upset over an accused child molester.)
"We can't assume high enthusiasm persists — particularly among demographic groups we have inconsistently engaged with in the past, including young voters, Latino voters and African-American voters," said a Democratic strategist familiar with the data. "Campaigns who haven't adequately invested in GOTV (get-out-the-vote) could be disappointed on Election Day."
Other Democratic strategists describe reaching out to voters of color as a challenge, but one they think they can surmount with a diligent campaign to reach out and communicate with them.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for instance, has undertaken a $25 million plan to reach out to the party's core constituencies, including black, Latino, and Asian-American voters, according to an aide with the group. The effort includes on-the-ground voter contact and paid media, such as digital ads.
Trump's presidency has given Democrats ample material to work with as they contact voters of color, whether highlighting his hard-line position on immigration or his rhetorical equivocation after last year's white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. But strategists say they need to focus on a forceful, positive messages that connects with these voters' lived experience, even if that means avoiding discussion of Trump.
Avila, the pastor in the Modesto area, said he was never involved with politics until Trump's victory.
"That really woke me up," he said. "It shook me."