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The Mexican American political moment is here

Throughout last year’s Democratic presidential primary, Democrats fretted about being labeled as anything even adjacent to socialism, lest they alienate Florida’s crucial Cuban-American voters. Many worried Sen. Bernie Sanders’ praise of some parts of Fidel Castro’s regime would jeopardize their chances of winning the state. Similarly, Rep. Karen Bass’ work in Cuba and calling Castro’s death a “great loss” was considered a mark against her in the running to be the party’s vice presidential nominee.

No matter, as Axios‘ Russell Contreras recently wrote, that Cuban Americans number only about 2 million nationally. Their outsized influence on American politics owes to the Electoral College and their concentration in a swing state. Conversely, as Contreras notes, Mexican Americans, who number around 37 million, often aren’t visibly courted at all, because they are largely based in solidly Democratic states, like California, or in Republican states, like Texas.

Yet the 2020 election results may have upended both Democrats’ and Republicans’ assumptions about Latino voters. The aftermath may present a new opportunity for Mexican Americans to exert their influence much in the same way Cuban Americans already have.

Despite the fact Democrats ultimately nominated Joe Biden, possibly the most moderate candidate in the primary field, Donald Trump made gains with Cuban American and Venezuelan voters in South Florida, largely by stoking fears about socialism. And there are some indications they are sticking by Republicans. A new poll highlighted in Politico found that a slight majority of the Cuban Americans in Florida disapprove of Biden’s performance as president. Even more dismaying for Democrats, 66 percent of Cuban Americans oppose returning to former President Barack Obama’s policy on Cuba, compared to 51 percent who supported Obama’s overtures in 2015. Surrendering Obama’s inroads is demoralizing after Democrats have tried and failed for years to win this bloc of voters by assuaging their fears that they are a bunch of socialists.

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All the while, despite Democrats long believing that Texas was just within their grasp if they turned out just enough non-white voters, Trump and Republicans made massive inroads in the overwhelmingly Latino Rio Grande Valley at the same time urban Latinos turned out for Democrats. There have been a litany of explanations for why this was the case, but one of the primary reasons was that Democrats have banked on Mexican Americans being reliably Democratic, which some have said left them feeling taken for granted. The Texas Democratic Party also admitted it did a poor job canvassing Latinos in the state and failed to send out in-person volunteers, all as Republicans saw a “surge” of Trump voters.

But Mexican-Americans have also shaped the trajectories of states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, all of which switched from voting for George W. Bush (who had strong ties to Mexican Americans as a governor of Texas, winning 44 percent of Latinos in 2004) to voting for Joe Biden in 2020, largely thanks to large Mexican American constituencies.

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Similarly, the blowback to California Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant ballot initiative passed in the 1994 midterm election, inspired many Mexican Americans — including Alex Padilla, who replaced Vice President Kamala Harris and became the state’s first Mexican American senator — to get involved in politics. Meanwhile, Arizona’s “show me your papers” legislation passed in 2010 ignited the spark of Latino and Mexican-American activism that grew into the flame of Biden’s 2020 victory and two Democratic senators.

This isn’t to say that Mexican Americans all care about immigration or want liberal immigration policies (though many do). In fact, many Mexican Americans work for border patrol or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which might make them wince when some Democrats call for abolishing the latter agency. Nor is it to discount the legitimate needs of the Cuban American community (though, ironically, by hitching their wagon solely to the GOP, they risk losing any potential influence with Democrats).

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Rather, it’s to say that Mexican Americans’ political needs and concerns deserve to be heard just as much as other groups’ needs. The inherent unfairness of the Electoral College means that neither party has felt the need to appeal to specific constituencies within California and Texas. But, if Republicans are truly banking on the Rio Grande Valley to regain their majority in the House, then they should recognize that Mexican American voters can be persuaded to vote for them if they touch on the right subjects. And if Democrats want to finally add Texas to their Southwestern Blue Wall, they need to make sure to pay for it with appeals to Mexican Americans and not simply expect them to hand over their agency.