Friday 28th of April 2017

By Ed O’Keefe, Post Politics

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) participates in a reenacted swearing-in with then-Vice President Joe Biden at the Capitol on Jan. 3. She’ll be in Georgia on Thursday for the launch of a new political action committee. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

An organization that helped elect seven Latinos to Congress last year is now looking to make similar gains in several state capitals.

The Latino Victory Project, a group that has raised millions of dollars to train and recruit Latino candidates, on Thursday is formally launching its first state-based PAC in Georgia. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) — the nation’s first female Hispanic U.S. senator — is traveling to the Atlanta area on Thursday for the kickoff and will appear alongside state Rep. Brenda Lopez (D), elected last year as Georgia’s first female Hispanic state legislator.

LVP is working on launching similar state-based PACs in Arizona, Florida and New York, where the group would recruit or endorse candidates in city or state legislative races.

“Our goal is to help build a bench for Latino candidates from school board to Senate. We have not seen another organization undertake this before,” Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Fund, said in an interview.

A spokesman for Cortez Masto confirmed she would be attending the breakfast-time kickoff event to help an organization that endorsed her campaign last year.

Georgia might seem like an odd place for a Latino political group to start, but the Peach State caught the attention of national Democrats last year. The reason? Fast Latino voter growth. They comprised just 2.3 percent of the state’s 5.4 million voters as of last November — but that’s a threefold increase since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. Latino voter registration climbed from 34,000 during the 2004 elections to 127,000 last year, Pew said.

Last summer, as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign appeared to be pulling away from Donald Trump in several key swing states, her campaign began deploying staffers to Georgia — a state Democrats hadn’t won in a presidential race since 1992 — in hopes of turning out Latino voters in the Atlanta area and towns like Gainesville, a poultry industry mecca that is home to thousands of working-class Hispanic families. A similar strategy was used in Arizona, North Carolina and to a lesser extent in Wisconsin and Iowa — but it did little to close Clinton’s margins against Trump.

[From August: As she gains in polls, Clinton seeks Latino support in unusual places]

Lopez, an attorney, won an uncontested race last year for a tiny state legislative district encompassing Norcross, a town in the northwestern part of metro Atlanta, where much of the region’s Latino population resides.

“We see Georgia as representative of the future of the country. Rapid demographic shifts, increasing Latino voter turnout and participation,” Alex said.

LVP is aiming to raise “into the six figures” for the Georgia PAC, he said, with the goal of recruiting and endorsing Latino candidates to win various local and state races in the coming years, mostly in the Atlanta area.

In 2016, LVP raised more than $4.2 million, distributed among 12 congressional and state legislative races. Of those, nine prevailed, including seven congressional candidates like Cortez Masto and Reps. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) and Darren Soto (D-Fla.).

LVP’s shift in gaze away from Washington comes as national Democrats and other progressive organizations are turning their attention to rebuilding at the state and local level, where thousands of Democratic incumbents lost races over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency. Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) announced this week that he’s funneling millions of dollars he’s raised for what appears to be an easy reelection campaign to help boost his state’s Democratic Party. At the Democratic National Committee, newly installed Chairman Tom Perez is in the midst of revamping the organization to focus on rebuilding state parties that felt neglected during the Obama years.

LVP plans to compete at the federal level again next year, with its eye on more races in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas especially. Founded originally as a nonpartisan group seeking to endorse Latinos in either party for the sake of Latino political advancement, it’s now focused on endorsing progressives.

The shift to the state level is also a tacit acknowledgment that with just one Latino set to join Trump’s Cabinet — Alexander Acosta, to be labor secretary — and few other senior Latinos serving in the White House, Latino groups have far fewer chances of advancing their agenda or accruing more power in Trump’s Washington.

For their state-based work, Alex cited as his model the League of Conservation Voters, which maintains a national super PAC that endorses political candidates, but also has state chapters that do political or advocacy work.

Plans for similar state-based PACs in Arizona, Florida and New York are in “advanced stages,” he said. In New York, the group plans would focus on citywide races in New York City and Syracuse this year and state legislative races next year. Given the growth of Puerto Rican, Dominican and Central American communities in New York City and Long Island, the group could seek out candidates to challenge incumbents who are not Latino, or endorse Latino candidates who enter crowded primaries as incumbents retire. That strategy helped elect Soto in an Orlando-based district and Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) in a Los Angeles-area seat last year.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter who has covered congressional and presidential politics since 2008.

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