As Nebraska’s Latino voters grow in power, candidates fight for their support in the second district

Oct. 27, 2022, 11 a.m. ·

Three people stand talking near a blue table, set on a sidewalk against a storefront with a sign that reads "Latino Center of the Midlands"
Colton Schlines encourages passerby to register to vote outside of the Latino Center of the Midlands on 24th street in South Omaha. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

Listen To This Story

On a Thursday night in October, Jackie Prados stood at the front of a South Omaha classroom on S. 24th St. and pointed to a Powerpoint presentation slide that read “Cómo votar en Nebraska” — “How to Vote in Nebraska” in Spanish. The community organizer with the League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha had just taught eight adults at the Latino Center of the Midlands a crash course in Nebraska government and was answering questions about the Nov. 8 general election.

Of the eight students in the classroom, six aren’t eligible to vote since they’re not U.S. citizens. But that doesn’t mean they can’t still do their part, Prados told them.

“Each one of you has at least 10 friends who can vote,” Prados said, switching between English and Spanish for the largely Spanish-speaking crowd. “You can send in a Whatsapp group, ‘Hey,’ you know, ‘be ready to vote. This is the website.’” If each person in the room spread the word to 10 friends, they could encourage more than 100 people to vote, she said.

Prados’ work and the Latino Center of the Midlands’ class are parts of a larger movement of outreach efforts from nonpartisan groups aiming to get Latino voters in Nebraska to the polls.

Growing in power

Latinos are the second-largest group of voters and the fastest-growing demographic in Nebraska. They’ve been a politically powerful group in the 2nd Congressional District, home to the predominantly Latino South Omaha. In 2020, the area was instrumental in winning Omaha’s electoral vote for President Joe Biden. But that same year, Republicans cut into Democrats’ national lead with Latino voters.

The changing sentiments of Latino voters could determine who wins the race for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District seat on Nov. 8. Democratic state Sen. Tony Vargas is challenging incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Don Bacon to represent the most racially and ethnically diverse of Nebraska’s three congressional districts.

The 2nd Congressional District has been a competitive ground for Republicans and Democrats for years. In the last several elections, the district’s precincts split votes down party lines and emerged with a Republican congressman. District 2 includes Douglas County, parts of Sarpy County and Saunders County due to redistricting, the process of drawing new electoral district boundaries. A quarter of registered voters in the 2nd Congressional District are registered independents; 38% are Republican and 36% are Democrat.

Some barriers hold the Latino electorate’s votes back locally and nationwide. Spanish-language resources are limited; ballots in the counties that make up District 2 are often only available in English. Spanish-speaking immigrants nationwide have also been targets of messaging misinformation campaigns, particularly during the 2020 presidential election.

Colorful messages cover the sidewalk. One stencil reads "VOTE VOTE VOTE."
Latino voters are Nebraska's second-largest and fastest-growing demographic. They've been a politically powerful group in the second congressional district. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

National polling shows a shift in the issues Latino voters care about. Mi Familia Vota, a national civic engagement organization, and UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights and advocacy group, polled more than 2,500 Latinos in eight states. The results showed that Latino voters care about inflation, jobs, crime, education and — increasingly — protecting abortion rights. Of Latino voters polled, 70% said abortion should remain legal, no matter their personal beliefs on the matter. Immigration, however, isn’t a top-five priority issue to most Latinos, according to the poll.

Polls like this show how perceptions can be wrong, said Jonathan Benjamín-Alvarado, a political analyst who taught at the University of Nebraska at Omaha before becoming a chancellor at Texas Christian University.

“I think it's revealing to us that what we think Latinos want is actually different than what they're actually telling us,” he said.

Candidates vie for Latino voters

Both Vargas and Bacon hope to win over Latino voters, each saying their values align most with the diverse group.

Bacon said his support of police and his anti-abortion position make him a good choice to represent Latinos in District 2. Bacon has said that he would support an abortion ban after 15 weeks.

Bacon, who has been in office since 2017, serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Agricultural Committee. During his time in office, he voted to support Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, recipients, while pushing for tougher border security.

“I believe that my values and really the GOP values align with the majority of Hispanic values. We’re pro family, we're pro faith. We're pro life, pro small business,” Bacon said.

On a Wednesday night in October, business owners and people of Omaha’s Latino community met Bacon at the Republican National Committee’s new Hispanic Community Center in South Omaha.

People sit and speak to each other at a white table in a room with white walls.
Representative Don Bacon speaks with Latino business leaders at the Republican National Committee's Hispanic Community Center in South Omaha. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News).

Jaime Suarez, who has built and sold Subway restaurants in the area, said he’s inclined to vote Republican since he is against abortion. But he told Bacon the Republican party needs to invest in Latino communities year-round to earn their support.

Republicans have done outreach for Latino voters in his area at specific times nearing elections, while Democrats “do it every day, every year, every week,” Suarez said.

Bacon admitted his party may have to work harder for Latino voters to feel welcome. He hopes to gain support from voters, and especially Latinos, who think Democrats have moved too far to the left in recent years.

“I'm meeting more and more Hispanic voters that say ‘Hey, you know, we thought we were Democrats. Because we're told we're supposed to be Democrat, until I heard the policy positions of Republicans versus Democrats. I realized, hey, I'm really more Republican,’” he said.

Vargas views Republicans’ outreach to Latino voters with cynicism.

“Whenever I see the efforts from any opponents that I've ever run against to try to engage the Latino community my question is always, ‘is this about political expediency? Or is this about actually trying to increase civic health in our communities?’” Vargas said.

Vargas said he’s been building a “meaningful, long-term relationship” with Latino voters since the start of his political career in South Omaha in 2013. He represented the area first on the Omaha Public Schools board and now represents parts of it as a state senator. In his outreach, he said he wants to make sure “the Latino community feels heard and not used” by politicians.

When it comes to addressing issues impacting Latinos in District 2, “the real question is what are (the issues) affecting working families,” Vargas said. “I find that those issues are really much in line with what the Latino community is facing.”

In door-to-door canvassing and conversations in the community, Vargas said he’s heard from Spanish-speaking voters concerned about rising costs at the grocery store or saving for a child’s education. If elected to Congress, he said he would work to increase access to health care and lower the cost of prescription drugs to help working families.

Three people pose for a selfie portrait with a cellphone. One man holds a blue sign that reads "Tony Vargas for Congress"
South Omaha residents Letisia and Rafael Perez smile for a selfie with state Senator Tony Vargas, the Democratic candidate for District 2, on Saturday, Oct. 15. (Photo by Bridget Fogarty, The Reader)

In Washington, Vargas said he would work across the aisle to find solutions with Republicans like he has in Nebraska’s state legislature. In the first legislative session, his votes for tax cuts got him the name of “Taxpayer Defender” by Americans For Prosperity, a conservative financial think tank. A report released Wednesday, Oct. 26 rated Vargas’ work in the full legislative session as “Taxpayer Neutral.” 

On a Saturday morning in October, Vargas chatted with South Omaha community members in the grassy lot near the G.I Forum, a South Omaha Mexican Restaurant. The event celebrated the life of Al Martinez Sr., the first Latino hired by the Omaha Police Department.

The son of Peruvian immigrants, Vargas would be the first Latino to represent Nebraska in Congress.

“For the Latino community, it doesn't matter if they've been here for one generation or five generations, the ethics of hard work and perseverance and sacrificing for your family, it's exactly what I've done my entire career,” he said. “I want to make sure that I'm bringing that fight to Congress on behalf of the Latino community.”

Maximo Guerrero, a 23-year-old Mexican-American who works as an emergency CNA, attended the civic engagement class at the Latino Center of the Midlands with his mother, who can’t vote. A first-generation college student who moved to Nebraska for school, he said he takes voting seriously for family and friends who aren’t U.S. citizens.

“Who I am is thanks to the people that came before me,” he said.

Guerrero said he will be voting for Vargas — and likely all the other Democrats on the ticket Nov. 8.

“(Democrats) are open minded to change; they're not narrow minded,” Guerrero said. “They want expansion. They want growth; they want diversity, versus Republicans, they're stuck in their ways. And they're always trying to put the blame on other people.”

Less than two weeks from Election Day, national polling still forecasts the race between Vargas and incumbent Bacon to be a toss up.

Benjamín-Alvarado warned that polling can only do so much — Latino voters aren’t a monolith.

“We have to give Latinos a sense of being a diverse population, but at the end of the day, we also have to look at them as humans,” Benjamín-Alvarado said.

This story is a collaboration between Nebraska Public Media and The Reader.

Correction note: This story was updated on October 28 to include a recent report that rates Vargas as “Taxpayer Neutral” in the full legislature session, a drop in the “Taxpayer Defender” status he received in the first session.