(CNN) - Before Kamala Harris' most recent town hall in Nevada, her senior adviser Emmy Ruiz took the stage to offer headsets and encourage voters to pose questions to Harris in Spanish, promising translation in real time.
It was a rare gesture of welcome at a time when many Latino voters feel vilified by President Donald Trump, with his untiring push for a border wall and his denunciations of border-crossers as criminals. It was also yet another sign of the Harris campaign's vigorous and early efforts to engage Latino voters -- particularly women -- as her team tries to weave together a coalition to win the 2020 Democratic primary.
With Harris' high-profile advocacy on immigration issues, her tough questioning of Trump administration officials who oversee border policy and family separations, and her refusal to support any funding for Trump's wall, the California senator is attempting to shape her image as an advocate for Latino communities far beyond California.
The politics of that quest are no accident. In the 2020 presidential election, Latinos will be the largest ethnic minority group in the electorate, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. They could be a huge factor in determining the winner of early Democratic contests like Nevada, California and Texas, a state that offers a trove of 200 delegates -- and where Harris will campaign for the first time Saturday.
"The Latino community deserves to be organized, engaged and mobilized -- and that was the No. 1 driver of why I joined the (Harris) campaign," said Ruiz, a seasoned organizer who helped launch Hillary Clinton's 2015 program "Mujeres in Politics" to get more Latinas registered to vote and involved in organizing.
As they get to know Harris' story, Ruiz believes Latinas will find a natural affinity for the senator.
"They feel an openness, a connection," said Ruiz, who has organized voters in Nevada for three cycles (2008, 2012, 2016) as well as her home state of Texas in another three (2008, 2010, 2014). "She's an immigrant kid, like so many of us. She's a woman of color. She gets those different challenges so many of us face in the workplace, in our homes, in breaking barriers as first-generation kids. So we really have to take that story to them."
The campaign, Ruiz noted, is focused on creating more "access points" and "entry points" for participation for Latino voters. That means engaging them in their neighborhoods, at their schools and churches -- making it easy for them to gather and discuss the campaign, as the first step toward organizing.
"The potential is unlimited," Ruiz said. "We're going to meet them where they're at, not where we're at. That's a real commitment that we have, and I'm really excited by it. It keeps me up at night, every night ... We have to ask ourselves, are we truly making it accessible for everyone?"
Who will Latino voters turn out for?
In this crowded field of Democratic candidates, there is almost no polling so far to indicate whether Latino voters are leaning toward one candidate, as they did toward Clinton in 2016. But the opportunity to make headway early within that influential demographic group has made a number of the 2020 hopefuls frequent visitors to the early caucus state of Nevada, where 17% of the electorate was Hispanic in 2016.
Strategists at many of the 2020 Democratic campaigns see an imperative in building on the surge of young Latinos who cast ballots in the tight congressional races of the 2018 midterms. UCLA political science professor Matt A. Barreto noted that younger Latino voters were a driving force in highly contested US House races in California and Nevada. He studied the change in midterm turnout between 2014 and 2018 in heavily Latino precincts for UCLA's Latino Policy & Politics Initiative.
"The data was all very clear, whether it was the pre-election polling data, or the election night polling data, or the precinct results, or the voter file—all the data that we've gone through points to record turnout rates by Latinos," Barreto said of the 2018 midterms. "And that was really driven by young Latinos, by millennials turning out at very high rates."
Notably, voters across the board turned out in record numbers last year.
Looking ahead at the power of that fast-growing demographic, Barreto estimates that in Texas alone, an additional 393,786 17- and 18-year-old Latinos will be eligible to vote in 2020, compared with 2018.
"There was a real drive and motivation within the Latino community to vote in this first Trump midterm," Barreto said, crediting that enthusiasm not only due to revulsion of Trump, but also because of the extensive organizing that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, third party-groups, and individual candidates like former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Nevada US Sen. Jackie Rosen did to activate Latino voters.
Maintaining that connection will be key for any 2020 candidate looking to tap into that trove of young Latino voters.
Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of global migration and demography research at Pew Research Center, noted that the number of eligible Hispanic voters grows with each election cycle -- so there is always a new record for turnout in sheer numbers alone. But the turnout rate among Latinos has historically remained lower than that of their black and white counterparts, so it's unclear what the growing numbers may mean for 2020.
What was different about 2018, Lopez said, was the level of interest among Latinos, presumably because of Trump's obsession with immigration issues, and the fact that polling shows many Latinos are increasingly concerned about the direction of the country and the future of their children.
It remains to be seen whether any of the candidates will have a natural advantage with that demographic group, even if they have done well with Latinos in past races.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who has already made several visits to Nevada, launched his campaign by calling himself "the antidote to Donald Trump" and emphasizing his family's immigrant past, but he is just an asterisk in the polls. (Castro has rebuffed criticism that he does not speak Spanish fluently, arguing that his critics have a "very one-dimensional, uninformed view of what moves a community.")
Pollsters and political analysts are still debating whether it was Latino voters who helped drive O'Rourke within a few points of unseating Republican US Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas last year, noting O'Rourke's frequent visits to the Rio Grande Valley and his message of inclusion as he transitioned smoothly from English to Spanish at his rallies.
Exit polls show O'Rourke defeated Cruz among Latinos 64% to 35%. But in the 2018 Senate Democratic primary in Texas, his rival Sema Hernandez, a virtual unknown, did far better than O'Rourke in several of the border counties.
In the general election, O'Rourke did not appear to have driven particularly strong turnout in some heavily Hispanic areas. Among the 10 largest counties in Texas, the one with the highest percentage of Latinos -- Hidalgo County -- had the lowest turnout when relative to the number of voters in the 2018 general election.
It's also hard to know whether Latino enthusiasm for O'Rourke in a race against a staunch conservative Republican in Texas will translate into a national contest pitting him against other Democrats who have longer track records working on immigration and pocketbook issues like the housing crisis that are critical to that group.
O'Rourke speaks Spanish on the trail often, and his stump speech prominently features him talking about being from the border. He also often makes an emotional appeal on immigration, likening himself to the people who show up on the border and saying he'd do the same thing if his children were in danger.
In recent months, the El Paso native has become one of the most prominent figures to take on Trump over his proposed wall at the border. Still, O'Rourke is a relative newcomer to the immigration debate. When Trump and O'Rourke held dueling rallies at the border last month, Trump derided his younger rival as "a young man who's got very little going for himself, except he's got a great first name."
On Sunday, O'Rourke will make his first trip to Nevada as an announced candidate holding a meet and greet with voters at Arandas Taqueria, and then meeting with members of the Mujeres network in the afternoon.
Combating Trump's policies
While there are myriad issues of concern to Latino voters, a diverse and complex demographic group, there's no question that Trump's harsh policies on immigration have moved the issue to the forefront of the national debate for all Democratic voters, particularly in states like Nevada and California, where many voters have friends and family members who have been directly affected by Trump's immigration policies.
When the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy led to thousands of children being separated from their families and sparked national outrage last year, Harris and other 2020 candidates, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, who speaks Spanish, all visited the border to express their outrage. Questions about reversing the administration's actions now often come up at Democratic campaign events.
Earlier this month, at Harris' town hall in North Las Vegas, student Nick Arellano asked Harris to outline "her action plan" for addressing the psychological issues experienced by children separated from their parents at the southern border.
"The toll that these policies are having on children -- that story has yet to be written -- and we are going to pay a price," Harris replied. She said the first step is to stop the policy, which she called a "human rights abuse." "The trauma we are inflicting on innocent children is unconscionable."
The Democratic presidential candidate went on to discuss how the Trump administration broke the nation's promise to Nevada's 13,000 recipients in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and she recalled her terse questioning of then-Homeland Security Secretary nominee John Kelly in 2017.
"We need a new president," she concluded to wild applause from the crowd.
The previous night, after a late flight from Washington, DC, to Las Vegas, Harris and her sister Maya had gone to dinner privately with Astrid Silva, a "Dreamer" -- an undocumented immigrant who was brought to the US as a child -- and immigration activist.
At La Casita de Doña Machi in Las Vegas, Silva, who has lived in Nevada since the age of 4, introduced Harris to other immigrants who shared their alarm over Trump's deportation policies, the lengthy processing times faced by many immigrants who have applied for citizenship, and his efforts to terminate the Temporary Protected Status program, which shelters many immigrants in the US who fled violence and natural disasters in their home countries.
Silva, who runs a nonprofit that provides aid to Nevada's immigrant families, has met recently in Nevada with Castro, Warren, and Booker, organizing roundtable events for some of them, just as she did for Clinton during the last presidential campaign. (A February 2016 meeting that Silva organized for Clinton led to the most memorable ad of Clinton's campaign -- "Brave" -- when a little girl told the candidate she was afraid her parents would be deported, and the candidate replied, "Let me do the worrying.")
"While there are other states that have large immigrant populations, they're not as loud sometimes as we can be in Nevada, which is such a great reflection of what the country is. We have amazing diversity here," Silva said in an interview with CNN. "It's important for the community to get to know these candidates. Candidates need to reach outside of the normal party politics."
"Most normal human beings don't have the ability to go to rallies, to go to the sit-downs, and so it's important for candidates to meet them where they are at -- like Sen. Harris going to a restaurant and meeting with some of our families," Silva said.
Gillibrand was the latest to visit to Nevada Friday, touring the University of Las Vegas Immigration Clinic and holding a roundtable with professors and students who provide pro bono legal services to immigrants and refugees in the state.
As Silva has watched the parade of candidates through her state -- with no clear front-runner emerging -- Silva said the upside of this long 2020 cycle is that the candidates seem engaged and eager to listen. On the flip side after 2016, Silva said many voters seem cognizant of the risk of sitting out the election.
"More than anything, people are just looking for solutions. They understand some people didn't pay attention last time," Silva said. "People are excited; they see a sense of hope in the election; but they also see the reality that a lot of things have been put in a very precarious position in the past few years."
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