In Milwaukee, Latinos fed up with crime weigh the GOP appeal

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — In two decades of street work on Milwaukee’s south side, evangelical pastor Marty Calderon has offered Bible study, gang prevention, a safe haven for addicts and job-finding help for those newly released from prison.

But as he watched rising crime threaten these efforts to “cleanse” his impoverished neighborhood, Calderon began bringing Republican politicians into his God Touch ministry.

He hopes the predominantly Hispanic, working-class community will hear what they can do about it — and Conservative candidates will learn the realities of these voters, particularly their immigration routes.

“The Republicans have never been as strong as they are. … I’m being very careful about that because I just don’t want people to think they’re going to come to get a vote,” Calderon said at his sanctuary, adding that he doesn’t push specific candidates on his community. “All I’m saying is go out there and vote and pray about it.”

Republican candidates across the country are trying to extend the party’s recent gains among Hispanic voters from Florida to the Rio Grande Valley to Los Angeles. What seems to drive them are the bread-and-butter issues that Calderon’s neighbors kept raising to Associated Press reporters last week — rampant lawlessness, problems with schools, and food and gas prices creeping out of reach of their paychecks.

These are consistently more important to Latino voters than immigration, allowing Republicans to make advances that represent a “major realignment” — if they end up splitting their votes between nearly 40% Republicans and 60% Democrats, rather than historically one One-third of Latinos vote on the right, said Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history and Latino studies at Northwestern University.

Even a few thousand votes in a state like Wisconsin — which yielded tiny margins for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 — could have an impact on national politics as GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is in a close race for re-election with Democratic challenger Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

A month before midterms, Johnson spoke about the importance of “renewed faith” when he met with Calderon and other community leaders at the year-old Republican National Committee’s Hispanic Outreach Center, two blocks from God Touch.

“We’re emerging,” Johnson said of the party’s reach in communities like this. “We have a universal message.”

Minutes earlier, US Republican Representative Bryan Steil, whose district in southeastern Wisconsin is just a few miles south, also made a stop at the storefront, which is adorned with yard signs, an elephant-shaped piñata, and US and state flags.

That effort emboldens 21-year-old Hilario Deleon, who grew up on the South Side and got involved in Republican campaigns after losing his job washing dishes during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“We’ve had a history of failing to be in the community,” he said of the GOP. He added that he likes to see political and religious leaders lead the way, like Calderon’s weekly food distribution. “I like to see God through people’s actions.”

The Wisconsin Electoral Commission does not collect racial or ethnicity data, but immigrant rights advocacy Voces de la Frontera estimates that there are about 180,000 voters among the state’s Hispanics, nearly 40% of whom live in Milwaukee. Most are of Mexican origin, followed by Puerto Ricans.

And according to pollster Charles Franklin of Marquette University Law School, 46% of registered Latino voters consider themselves independent. His aggregate polling data over the past two years shows that Latino voters in Wisconsin are about halfway between white and black on political issues — and 71% identify as Christian.

“Political parties cannot take this population for granted,” said Felipe Hinojosa, a professor at Texas A&M University who studies the connection between religion and politics among Latinos.

He thinks that the centrality of faith in the daily lives of many Hispanics doesn’t automatically make them Republicans, but being an ethnic minority doesn’t automatically make them Democrats either.

No wonder bilingual advertisers knocked on the door on Milwaukee’s south side last week. They came from both Voces, which supports the Democrats, and Operación Vamos (“operation let’s go” in Spanish), the Republican Party’s new Hispanic aid organization.

Past taquerias and historic churches founded by Central European immigrants and now largely frequented by Mexican believers, the touts stopped at modest single-family homes, many with Halloween decorations but no campaign signs.

Deisy Espana, a 20-year-old college student who brought Voces flyers promoting “pro-immigrant, pro-working-class” candidates — the Wisconsin Democrats running for state office — said the ” “unfair” treatment that their undocumented parents are subjected to motivate their activism.

But “Latinos are switching because of a lack of fulfilled promises,” she added, particularly on immigration. Voces founding director Christine Neumann-Ortiz said she feared disillusioned Latinos might not be able to vote at all.

Vamos recruiters faced a different kind of challenge with unaffiliated Hispanic voters.

“Local people hear, ‘No one ever reached out to us before,’ or ‘I didn’t expect Republicans to reach out to us,'” said Ana Carbonell, Hispanic public relations adviser with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who launched Vamos- Efforts this midseason in nine key states, including Wisconsin.

In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in late September, more Latinos said they felt the Democratic Party was “working hard to win Latino votes” and “cares about Latinos” than the Republican Party.

The historic lack of outreach for the Latino community has Hispanic voters “bundling” their own issues, often based on faith, rather than embracing an “ideological package” from either party, said Ali Valenzuela, a professor of Latino politics at an American university. That can benefit Republicans when the focus is on the economy, like this midterms.

Since April, Vamos in Wisconsin has contacted more Hispanic voters there than it has in the last three election cycles combined — voters like the woman who smirked at two Vamos recruiters last week, “You’re in the wrong neighborhood.”

“I can always learn more,” she added nonetheless, accepting her flyers.

Nearby, Artemio Martinez, a construction worker from Mexico who was married to a US citizen, said he was grateful that Vamos knocked on his door.

As his 2-year-old daughter played with the bilingual flyer listing Republican statewide candidates under “¡Equipo Ganador!” — the “winning team,” first described as “pro-faith” and “family-friendly” — Martinez said he had no plans to vote.

“But if the senator (Johnson) is going to do something about it,” he added, referring to the crime and drug use he sees happening all over the neighborhood, “we will put our support and vote to get things done in the community can change.”

Working on new siding for his white home, Noah Ledezma also said he wasn’t sure he would vote. He has supported Republicans in the past because he feels the party is more aligned with his Christian faith and family values.

But now he believes life is getting harder for working-class people like him, no matter who’s in charge – born to Mexican immigrants, the father of five works in construction while his wife is a teacher.

“Everything they do is bickering,” he said of politicians. “You have to see the change. You have to see how they work together.”

The Vamos recruiters and their literature could not deter him. But what if Johnson showed up in person to answer “open questions” on an important issue like education.

“It’s different when you see them out here,” Ledezma said. “Suppose I ask… ‘Senator, what are you going to do to make it different?’ … And you hear it from the horse’s mouth … I can say, ‘I will be held accountable. Okay, you have my vote.’”

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The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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