Latino voters have historically leaned Democratic, but more Latinos than ever voted Republican in the 2020 election and showed they can’t be taken for granted by either political party.

The Latino vote provided decisive leads. In Florida, Latinos cast votes for President Donald Trump. In Arizona, they helped decide the election for President-elect Joe Biden. And in Tennessee, with a young but growing immigrant population, Latinos were a target for both parties just as they were in other states.

At Casa Azafran, continuous lines of immigrants waited hours to vote for the first time this year and considered this one of the most important elections in their lifetime. 

“This was a very positive election for the Latino community,” said Raul Lopez, founder of Latinos for Tennessee. 

Throughout the state, several organizations played a part in getting Latinos to vote, including TIRRC Votes, which held events to register about 1,500 voters. 

As one of only a few prominent conservative Latino political activists in Tennessee, Lopez has dedicated much of his career to attracting potential Latino voters to conservative causes. His organization  is the only conservative Latino organization in Tennessee and has conducted voter registration drives through church events and pre-pandemic door-to-door campaigning. 

Lopez considers his organization an advocacy group, often campaigning for conservative Latinos running for office. Although he said he did not keep records of how many people the group  registered in 2020 the Latino vote wasn’t substantial enough to impact any races this year. But their vote is expected to make an impact “in a few election cycles for sure, definitely in local politics,” said Lopez.

Instead, this year Lopez primarily focused on working with Florida, Texas and Georgia conservatives in recruiting Hispanic voters in the key battleground states. 

Raul Lopez. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Raul Lopez. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lopez said his grassroots organization doesn’t take credit for the uptick in conservative Latino votes. In Tennessee, Lopez said he finds it difficult to compete with “well-funded organizations” such as Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC). 

“It’s an uphill battle for us,” said Lopez, who labels other Latino organizations as left leaning due to immigration policy. 

For Lopez, a long history of Republican involvement

Lopez became politically active during  the 2004 presidential campaign.  He served as an alternate delegate for then-President George W. Bush and served as a communications director for the Tennessee Republican Party. In 2008 he served as the Tennessee Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for U.S. Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign.

In 2016, he was the Middle Tennessee campaign chair for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. 

He also serves on the board of directors of the Beacon Center, a nonprofit free-market think tank based in Nashville. The Beacon Center is part of State Policy Network, an umbrella organization for conservative and libertarian think tanks.

Since 2006, Lopez has worked for Men of Valor, a Christian organization that works to assist men coming out of prison by providing them housing and part time jobs, among other programs. Lopez has been executive director since 2014. 

Gov. Bill Lee has served as a board member for Men of Valor and touted the organization as a model for reducing recidivism and appointed Lopez to a criminal justice reform task force charged with making recommendations to guide state policy. 

Lopez’s association with Lee through Men of Valor has given him the chance to assume a larger role in representing the Hispanic community on other state issues as well. 

In 2019, Lee appointed Lopez to the Tennessee Complete Count Census Committee where he served alongside prominent Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett.

A review of financial disclosures filed with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance shows that contributions to Latinos for Tennessee’s state political action committee come from prominent conservative donors. 

Private prison company CoreCivic donated $10,000 on Oct. 5. Over the last few years, donors have included Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, CASPAC, Sen. Johnson’s JackPac, former Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, David Black, husband of former U.S. Rep. Diane Black and Nashville auto dealer Lee Beaman, who has also served on the board of Men of Valor.

Latino voters: not a monolith

Instead, he gives credit to the pre-COVID-19 economy for attracting Latino voters. In Tennessee, Latinos are attracted to issues including school vouchers and religious freedom. 

“A lot of them decided to flip their vote,” said Lopez, adding that many Latinos may not have wanted to associate with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Yes, we did the hard work. Yes, we got the word out, but I think it was just in light of what happened,” said Lopez. 

Lopez said that one important thing to understand about the Latino community is that it’s unfair to lump all Latinos in the same category, Lopez said. Hispanics and Latinos have had similar experiences but are not a monolith. They only share a few things in common: the Spanish language and distrust in the government. 

“A lot of our background is corrupt government so people are very distrusting,” he said, although he rejects the notion that Hispanics only vote for conservatives due to fears of socialism.

Latinos in Florida are more established than Tennessee Latinos, have been for generations, and are primarily made up of Cubans and Venezuelans, who tend to vote more conservatively. Raul Lopez’s own roots come from Cuba, from where he immigrated with his parents when he was young. 

Lopez stands in a room at the Men of Valor campus. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Lopez stands in a room at the Men of Valor campus. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee’s Latinos primarily consist of Mexican-Americans, who tend to vote more liberally, according to Pew Research Center. And Tennessee’s immigrant population is relatively new, with most coming to the state since the early 2000s. In 2018, about 5% of Tennessee’s population was comprised of foreign-born immigrants, and about 4% of Tennesseans had at least one immigrant parent, according to the American Immigration Council.

“But again [the community] is young and it’s only going to grow,” said Lopez. 

In Nashville, where 12% of the population is foreign-born, immigrants who become citizens have the potential to make an impact in the next few elections, especially as the population has grown significantly since 2000, according to Nashville’s Office of New Americans.

“In Tennessee, we’re not quite up to North Carolina, but in a few years, it will be,” said Lopez on the importance of the Latino vote.

He recalls previous state elections, when in 2006 then-Gov. Phil Bredesen won the election by about 40,000 votes, and Bob Corker became a senator by almost 40,000. 

“That’s a senate race and a governor race that went to opposite parties. It can happen. In an election like that, yes, the Hispanic vote would be huge,” said Lopez. 

The Latino vote “can’t be taken for granted,” he said.