Some Kansas Democrats question state party’s strategy with Latino voters

Some Kansas Democratic Party insiders point to a failure to engage Latino voters as one reason for Paul Davis’ loss in the tight race for governor and for the party’s losses in legislative races throughout the state.

In the wake of last week’s election, in which Republicans swept all statewide races, Democrats are assessing the damage and looking for a cause.

Kansas Republicans benefited from a national wave, which saw the GOP take control of the U.S. Senate, tighten its grip on the U.S. House and win the overwhelming majority of contested governors’ seats.

However, some Kansas Democrats say the party could have had better luck in the Sunflower State had it done a better job of engaging Latino voters.

Gov. Sam Brownback received support from 47 percent of Latino voters compared to 46 percent for Davis, according to exit poll data from the National Election Pool, which includes the Associated Press and other national news outlets. Latinos made up 6 percent of the Kansas electorate based on the exit polls, but make up more than 11 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Secretary of State’s Office said it does not track the ethnic or racial demographics of voters so it could not provide the number of Latinos who voted in the election.

For the 2014 election the Kansas Democratic Party’s executive committee approved a plan to hire a Hispanic Outreach Coordinator and set up a field office in southwest Kansas in April 2013, according to documents obtained by The Eagle.

The party’s 2013 Latino Outreach Plan states that aside from Wyandotte County “the majority of Latinos live in counties where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats.”

“In order to achieve Democratic victories in these areas and start making headway statewide … the Democratic Party must change the voting demographics by bringing in many new voters who will be extremely likely to vote for the Democratic ticket,” the document states.

Other documents show the committee approved a salary of $36,000 for the outreach coordinator and a budget of $25,000 for expenses to be used on the position in 2014.

“We fought to make sure the budget had enough money for an office in Dodge City or Garden City, and then nothing happened,” said Ryon Carey, a member of the state party’s executive committee who voted in favor of the plan. “For the first time, it would have actually put some people out in southwest Kansas to talk to rural Kansans, especially Hispanics.

“It boggles my mind that Seward, Finney and Ford are all majority minority counties and every single time we get shellacked out there,” he added.

The party did hire an Hispanic Outreach Coordinator in August of 2013, but he worked out of Topeka rather than southwest Kansas as initially planned.

Jason Perkey, the party’s executive director, said that the documents received by The Eagle represented an early iteration of the outreach plan and that over time the strategy evolved from a targeted regional strategy to a statewide approach.

“I looked at Census data that showed you could combine the number of Latinos in all three of those counties and you don’t get half the number that live in Wichita,” Perkey said. “It needed to be a statewide approach because we’re a statewide organization rather than a regional one.”

Perkey defended the revised strategy, but when asked why he thinks exit poll data showed Davis deadlocked with Brownback among Latino voters, a group that tends to vote Democratic nationally, Perkey replied, “I don’t know. And it’s my job to find out.”

Perkey said that Carlos Lugo, the outreach coordinator, made regular trips to southwest Kansas throughout the campaign but his work also spanned the whole state. He also said that the strategy evolved throughout the campaign according to the party’s needs and resources.

‘Too little, too late’

The lack of focus on southwest Kansas was a crucial mistake, said Johnny Dunlap, the Democratic Party’s chair in both Ford County and the 1st Congressional District, which includes all of western Kansas.

“We’ve been given excuses … things like, ‘Well, when you look at the raw numbers there are more Latinos in Kansas City and Wichita, so southwest Kansas they can’t get as many votes,’ ” Dunlap said.

“And the thing about it is in southwest Kansas – and especially in Dodge City, Garden City, Liberal – there’s a difference in proportion. If Democrats can win over the Hispanic population, and if Democrats can motivate that population to vote, we would never lose elections in this part of the state.”

The executive committee also approved funding for a field director in the 1st Congressional District, but did not hire someone for that post until three weeks before the election, which Dunlap called “too little, too late.”

Dunlap pointed to the House race in the 119th District, where Rep. Bud Estes, R-Dodge City, staved off a challenge from Democrat John Thomas. Estes received 2,608 votes, about double what Thomas got, but Dunlap says in that district the number of registered Hispanic voters who are Democrats or unaffiliated is more than 3,200.

“It’s just insane to me that they wouldn’t attempt or put forth a greater effort to contact Latino voters,” Dunlap said.

When Jill Docking, Davis’ running mate, traveled to Dodge City to speak to Latino voters, the state party failed to print Spanish language campaign literature, according to the Daily Kos, a liberal political blog.

Joan Wagnon, the state party chairwoman, told the Lawrence-Journal World that the party chose not to print campaign literature in Spanish because most of the Latino voters in the targeted areas speak English.

Dunlap said that Wagnon’s comment misses the point.

“To me that’s indicative of a profound ignorance of the population out here,” Dunlap said. “If you want folks to vote for you, you should acknowledge and respect their cultural identity, and language is a big part of cultural identity.”

Reason to vote

Sulma Arias, executive director of Kansas People’s Action, a Wichita-based group that worked to mobilize African-American and Latino voters, said that exit polls were inherently unreliable in measuring the behavior of Latino voters because the questions were conducted in English.

But she still said that Democrats absolutely could have done more to get Latino voters to the polls.

“Yes, absolutely, but more than just translating materials, running Spanish ads, portraying people of color in their commercials or not avoiding our issues,” Arias said in an e-mail. “Democrats needed to give our community something on Immigration Reform, the issue most important to our communities.”

Both Carey and Dunlap say that the Democrats failed to offer voters of all backgrounds in western Kansas a reason to vote for them.

Davis’ laser-focus on education funding did little to sway parents in Dodge City, where the school district has distributed iPads to every student, Dunlap said. And most of the party’s outreach focused on telling voters to vote rather than telling them why, he said.

Carey, who lives in Lindsborg, said pushing for Medicaid expansion could have motivated voters in western Kansas to get to the polls to support Democrats.

“It’s going to take a long time to break the curse of not talking to rural voters,” he said.

Perkey said he would be spending the next two weeks on the road meeting with Democratic activists throughout the state to get their feedback on the election.

“There are people who are thankful for the work that was put in during the course of this election … and on the opposite side there are people who believe we did everything wrong and are saying very loudly that we need to be replaced,” Perkey said.

He said he welcomed both perspectives.

“I am thankful that there is someone out there holding the Democratic Party accountable for not being successful in 2014,” he said.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.