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Republicans see an opportunity in Wisconsin with Latino voters

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Just a couple miles from where Republican presidential candidates held their first debate in Milwaukee, another political battle has begun to brew that could have an even bigger impact on the 2024 race. In the Lincoln Village neighborhood, the South Side community, where it's about as common to be greeted in Spanish as in English, Republicans are trying to cut into Democrats' hold on Latino voters. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has more.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Laughter).

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: While her 11-year-old-son is getting his back-to-school haircut, Jennifer Nuno acknowledges she voted for President Biden, thinking he'd bring back more decency to the White House.

JENNIFER NUNO: I did just because of the awful things Trump had said.

ORDOÑEZ: It hasn't turned out the way she hoped. The 30-year-old mother is thankful for his help with student loans, but she's not sure what practical differences he's made for the larger Latino community in Milwaukee.

NUNO: I just don't see anything changing. I mean, we are where we are right now.

ORDOÑEZ: Nuno, whose family is from Peru, says relatives have been deported under Biden and complains how difficult it is to gain asylum. And like many Americans, she also worries about a rising cost of living. So she's not sure if she'll vote for Biden again.

NUNO: If Republicans have some good points, I am open to voting for them, but it really, really has to persuade me to really choose them.

ORDOÑEZ: Wisconsin is a swing state but not known for the power of the Latino vote. But they're a rapidly growing voting population in a state with such minuscule margins that even a small shift can have a big impact on national politics.

BEN MARQUEZ: Because most Latinos are not committed Democratic ideologues.

ORDOÑEZ: Ben Marquez is a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in Latino studies. He says a large majority of Latinos will support Democrats, but that's not the point. There are more than 180,000 eligible Latino voters in the state. Biden won the state by less than 25,000 votes. In 2016, Trump did the same. Marquez says that's an opportunity for Republicans.

MARQUEZ: They don't need to win, you know, the Latino vote. They just need to take a big chunk out of the traditional Democratic vote.

ORDOÑEZ: That's what Republicans are trying to do.

HILARIO DELEON: Recent trends show that more and more Hispanics and Latinos are becoming conservative.

ORDOÑEZ: Hilario DeLeon is chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party. He's been walking the streets of Lincoln Village and other minority neighborhoods with a message that conservatives have more to offer on issues like jobs and high food prices, issues that are important to the community.

DELEON: You know, we're not going to win Milwaukee outright. It's impossible. It's just a Democrat city. But we can increase that voter percentage to, you know, help the rest of the state, give them breathing room.

ORDOÑEZ: Republicans feel they don't need to win a majority of Latinos or even a lot more. They just want to win enough to close the narrow gap. Democrats and Latino activists, though, are still confident that they can win on policy.

CHRISTINE NEUMANN-ORTIZ: I would be concerned about Republican outreach if it were happening in a vacuum. But unless they change their political stance on immigration and on workers' rights, they will not make inroads here.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the executive director of Voces de la Frontera Action. They've helped lead aggressive outreach efforts, registering new voters and increasing participation. She points to the Latino turnout to help reelect Democratic Governor Tony Evers as a testament to their efforts, as well as their work helping elect a new progressive judge to the state Supreme Court just this year. Democrats know they'll win the Latino vote, especially with more young Latinos coming of age. The question is, though, will they retain enough to keep the state blue?

NEUMANN-ORTIZ: One illustration of this is that in 2020, 18,000 Latinos in Wisconsin turned 18 and are U.S. citizens. That's the margin of victory.

ORDOÑEZ: But still, she says, Latinos in the community need to see more from Biden.

NEUMANN-ORTIZ: I know from the work that we did. It was not enough to say how cruel Trump was. They wanted to know, what does Biden have to offer?

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLINKING)

ORDOÑEZ: Mario Juarez isn't sure if he likes what Biden has to offer anymore.

MARIO JUAREZ: The problem is that I don't see any change.

ORDOÑEZ: Juarez is building a new patio and fire pit in his backyard. He runs a landscape architecture business and goes to college at Milwaukee Area Tech. He says he would have voted for Biden three years ago but wasn't a citizen yet. And since becoming one, he spent the last couple of years exploring his options.

JUAREZ: I thought because of the color of my skin or who I identify as, I had to vote a specific way.

ORDOÑEZ: He's 24, Latino and gay. He's also a small business owner, and he's more concerned about jobs and the economy. And he also worries about what he calls Biden's woke agenda and efforts to elevate a gender ideology.

JUAREZ: I used to be very liberal, but I think as of recently, I kind of opened my mind a lot more. And I really looked into my core values and who I am as a person.

ORDOÑEZ: And he says he's feeling right now that his core values align more with the Republican Party. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULS OF MISCHIEF SONG, "93 'TIL INFINITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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