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In a state where elections can be close, Wisconsin Latinos learn their political power

Jennifer Nuno checks her 11-year-old son's back-to-school haircut in the Lincoln Village neighborhood of Milwaukee on August 21.
Franco Ordoñez
/
NPR
Jennifer Nuno checks her 11-year-old son's back-to-school haircut in the Lincoln Village neighborhood of Milwaukee on August 21.

MILWAUKEE - Jennifer Nuno voted for President Biden because she thought he'd bring more decency back to the White House.

It hasn't turned out the way the Latino mother of two hoped.

Speaking over the TVs turned to a Spanish-language telenovela, Nuno volunteered why she was unhappy with the president as her 11-year-old got a back-to-school haircut.

The 30-year-old esthetician sits on a set of benches alongside other parents at this hair salon in Lincoln Village, a Milwaukee neighborhood where it's about as common to be greeted in Spanish as it is in English.

She appreciates Biden's work on student loans but says she questions what practical differences he's made here - for the larger Latino community in Milwaukee.

And like many Americans, she worries about the high cost of gas and groceries.

"I just don't see anything changing," she said. "I mean we are where we are right now."

She's not sure if she'll vote for Biden again.

Republicans see an opening with Latino voters

Nuno is among a group of Latino voters living in Milwaukee's south side who Republicans hope to make inroads with.

The party is investing a lot of resources in Milwaukee - and the state of Wisconsin as a whole - in hopes of winning the crucial battleground back in 2024.

Republican presidential candidates participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23 in Milwaukee.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Republican presidential candidates participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23 in Milwaukee.

Wisconsin is not known for the power of its Latino vote, but in a state with such tiny margins even a small shift can have a big impact on national politics.

Most Latinos are not "committed Democratic ideologues," explained Ben Marquez, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Republicans don't need to win the Latino vote," said Marquez, who specializes in Latino studies. "They just need to take a big chunk out of the traditional Democratic vote."

He notes there are more than 180,000 unregistered, eligible Latino voters in the state.

Biden won Wisconsin by less than 25,000 votes in 2020. Trump won the state in 2016 by roughly the same number of votes.

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In Milwaukee's most heavily Latino populated wards, Latino support for Biden slipped some 6 to 10 points, according to pollster Charles Franklin from Marquette University Law School.

"So, in that sense, Milwaukee's Hispanic majority wards shifted. And they shifted in much the same way that we saw in parts of Florida and Texas," Franklin said.

The state Republican Party is just weeks away from opening up a new Hispanic Community Center in Milwaukee's south side.

Hilario Deleon is chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican party. He is trying to energize Latino votes in the city toward Republican candidates, speaking on August 23.
Franco Ordoñez / NPR
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NPR
Hilario Deleon is chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican party. He is trying to energize Latino votes in the city toward Republican candidates, speaking on August 23.

Hilario Deleon, chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican party, has been walking the streets of Lincoln Village and other minority neighborhoods with a message that conservatives have more to offer on issues that are important to the community. He specifically mentions jobs and high food prices.

"Recent trends show that more and more Hispanics and Latinos are becoming conservative," said Deleon, who has Latino roots himself.

Democrats confident, but cautious, on Latino voters

Democrats and Latino activists are still confident that they will win on policy.

Voces de la Frontera Action has been conducting extensive outreach, registering new voters and increasing participation across the city and state.

Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz points to the Latino turnout and reelection of Democratic Governor Tony Evers as a testament to their efforts. She also cites the election of a new progressive judge to the state Supreme Court earlier this year.

"I would be concerned about Republican outreach if it were happening in a vacuum," Neumann-Ortiz said. "But unless they change their political stance on immigration and on workers rights, they will not make inroads here."

Democrats may know they will win the Latino vote, especially with more young Latinos coming of age. But the question remains whether they can retain enough voters to keep the state blue.

Neumann-Ortiz is confident Democrats can keep the margin in the party's favor because it has that advantage on policy, plus a growing demographic advantage.

"One illustration of this is that in 2020, 18,000 Latinos in Wisconsin turned 18 and are U.S. citizens," Neumann-Ortiz said. "That's the margin of victory between the two parties in statewide races."

'I used to be very liberal:' Latinos weigh their options

Mario Juarez, a student and small business owner, talks about his changing politics in Milwaukee on August 21.
Franco Ordoñez / NPR
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NPR
Mario Juarez, a student and small business owner, talks about his changing politics in Milwaukee on August 21.

Mario Juarez is a 24-year-old college student. He's also Latino and gay but says he shouldn't be put in any specific voting bloc.

He runs a landscape architecture company. As a small business owner, he's more concerned about jobs and the economy.

He also worries about what he calls Biden's 'woke' agenda and the administration's efforts to elevate a gender ideology.

"I used to be very liberal," he said. "But I think I have recently I've kind of opened my mind a lot more and I've really looked into my core values and who I am as a person."

Juarez says he's feeling his core values, right now, align more with the Republican Party.

And back at the hair salon, Nuno says she's just waiting for one of the candidates - Republican or Democrat - to offer up more practical solutions for the community.

She hasn't heard any yet.

"If Republicans have some good points, I'm open to voting for them," she said. "But it really, really has to persuade me to choose them."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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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