Why many religious Latinos find the GOP is a better fit than the Democratic Party

As more Latinos in the United States leave Catholicism, they are changing their politics that better align with conservative thinking on abortion, marriage and religious liberty. How are Republicans and Democrats responding?

Anna Luna, a 32-year-old Mexican American who is running for Florida’s 13th Congressional District as a Republican, still remembers the moment that she told her mother she’d cast her ballot in 2016 for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. 

Her mother was so upset — and loud — about her feelings that Luna had to hold the phone away from her ear. “She wasn’t having it,” Luna recalled.

She added, with a laugh, that her mom went on to start a Facebook page called “Mothers of daughters who voted for Trump.” 

Since Luna’s grandparents came from Mexico to the United States — where Luna’s mother and father were born — the family has voted Democrat, as have a majority of Latinos, historically. But two generations later, the young Luna is making her second attempt to flip one of Florida’s blue congressional districts red. In her first go-round, she lost to Democratic incumbent and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

Her story points to the intertwined religious and political changes in the Latino community that some say will resonate through American political life for decades to come. Data suggests that the Latino shift away from the Democratic Party is propelled, in part, by a broader move away from Catholicism. While the fastest-growing religious group of Latinos are unaffiliated with any church, many who leave Catholicism also turn to evangelicalism. And with this realignment of their faith comes a realignment of their political affiliation: Evangelicalism’s emphasis on a personal, unmediated relationship with God — independent of institutions — and individual rather than systemic responsibility that closely dovetails with Republican and conservative thinking.

Asked if the GOP might be forced to move toward the center to woo the Hispanic vote, Luna and others — including some Latino evangelical pastors — insist the conservative agenda and the Latino community’s values are already one and the same. What’s new, they argued, is that Latinos are beginning to understand that the Republican Party offers many in their community a natural home. 

“Latinos are awakening and they are finally realizing that our values do not align to the Democrats’ platform,” said the Rev. Adianis Morales. An associate pastor at a church in Orlando, the Rev. Morales has also served as an engagement coordinator for Latinos for Trump and a faith initiatives liaison for the Republican Party of Florida. 

She said when she first arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico, she registered as a Democrat. Her decision, she said, was symptomatic of widespread “indoctrination” that tells “us that because we are Hispanics we are Democrats.” As she has knocked on doors across central Florida during various campaigns, she added, she heard this idea repeated over and over again by Latino voters. 

“But when you learn the platforms and you see the differences in the platforms,” said the Rev. Morales, “the Republican Party reflects our values and our religious beliefs.” Like most political conservatives, Latinos are particularly concerned with religious liberty, she said, as well as abortion and traditional marriage. 

In this Sept. 29, 2020, file photo, Eddie Collantes stands with an American flag draped around his shoulders as he attends a debate watch party hosted by the Miami Young Republicans, Latinos for Trump and other groups in Miami. | Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

Faith and culture

Though 2020 didn’t reveal a broad Latino swing toward Trump, the former president did get more support from Latino voters than he had in 2016. And the GOP made modest gains with Latino voters in Florida, Georgia and Texas, while then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden received less Latino support in Ohio than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

Republican candidates’ popularity with evangelicals and a Latino shift toward Protestantism explain some of the party’s gains with this group. Luna, in some ways, embodies this shift: Though she was born and baptized Catholic, her family attended Calvary Chapel, an evangelical denomination, when she was young. Today Luna and her husband attend a Baptist church.

But the Rev. Morales said that the affinity for the Republican Party transcends religion and is explained by deeply rooted cultural mores.

Even religiously unaffiliated Latinos are widely opposed to abortion, she said. Data suggests that Latinos are slightly more conservative on abortion than white and Black Americans, with those born in Latin America reporting more opposition to abortion than U.S.-born Hispanics. Latino millennials are widely opposed to abortion with a majority of both Catholics and Protestants saying that it should be illegal, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

The Rev. Morales said that religious liberty is important to Latino families because they want the right to have their children raised with certain faith-based values.

Both the Rev. Morales and Luna spoke at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference in June, where the Latino presence was so strong that simultaneous translation from English to Spanish was offered. The Rev. Morales helped recruit the 500 Latino pastors who attended. And there were also speakers and panels that revolved around issues relevant to the Hispanic community — suggesting that Latino Republicans, particularly those of faith, are indeed a force to be reckoned with. 

But the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said that the issue of Hispanic evangelicals’ march toward the Republican Party isn’t so settled. Pointing to himself as an example, he explained that a large number of Latinos identify as independents. Latino evangelicals, he said, are “the quintessential swing voters,” pointing out that they represent the convergence of “two realities” in America: that of Latinos, who tend to vote Democrat, as well as evangelicals, who lean Republican.

“George W. Bush won the Hispanic evangelical vote both times he ran,” said the Rev. Salguero, “Barack Obama won the Hispanic evangelical vote both times he ran ... we’re not a monolith.”

He also emphasized that Latinos aren’t single-issue voters. Many — whether Catholic or evangelical — have a pro-life stance that goes beyond abortion, spanning the cradle to the grave, and that includes concerns like poverty, prison reform and affordable housing.

“We stand at the nexus of all kinds of social issues and immigration and economic issues,” the Rev. Salguero said. “We think all of these things are priorities.”

Many Latinos are socially conservative but politically liberal and support the idea of a social safety net. Those Hispanic voters, he remarked, might feel alienated by the Republican Party. 

Still, he said, the Republicans might have an advantage because they have been aggressively pursuing the Hispanic evangelical vote for “decades.”

“The Republican Party understood early on that the Hispanic evangelical vote is up for grabs,” he said, adding that conservative groups like the Faith and Freedom Coalition “didn’t start reaching out yesterday.”

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Taken for granted

While the Democrats appear to still have a lock on most of the the Latino vote, political consultant Chuck Rocha — who was a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders — explained that the numbers could be giving the party a false sense of security. He pointed to Texas as an example: “You had places like Hidalgo county that shows that they’re all registered Democrats … (and) 53,000 voters showed up and voted Republican.”

Many of these voters who were registered for one party but voted for the other, he added, “hadn’t voted for two cycles.”

Rocha said that the last election was a “wake-up call” for Democrats who have long labeled Latino voters as “a base vote and not a persuadable vote.”  

Evangelical Latinos like the Rev. Morales are a minority that make a lot of noise but who don’t really represent the majority of Latino voters, Rocha said, acknowledging that the Democratic Party has some work to do if it wants to keep Latino voters. To that end, he said, Democrats are already making unprecedented efforts to reach Latino voters ahead of the 2024 presidential election “talking about what they’re doing to make their lives better.”

“The president and his super PACs are doing more work earlier than I’ve ever seen any president,” said Rocha.

He added that the concerns of Latino voters are not unique. They are a lot like those of working class whites. “Jobs, the economy, COVID relief, education — that’s what’s driving folks right now,” he said. “Gas prices, bread prices. They’re really concerned about their kids not being able to go back to school because working class families have to figure out child care.”

Because the Latino demographic is young, Rocha said, with an average age younger than the white population, Democrats need to step up their game when it comes to communicating with Hispanic youth.

If they don’t, young Republicans like Luna might just beat the Democrats to the punch.

While Luna’s 2020 congressional bid was unsuccessful, capturing 47% of the vote as opposed to Crist’s 53%, she’s focusing her outreach this time on young Hispanics like herself as a strategy. With Crist stepping aside to make a bid to be Florida’s governor again, Luna’s chances of grabbing the open seat in 2022 seem even better.

Young, tenacious and outspoken, her victory would be a coup reminiscent of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who, in New York State, took a congressional seat held by a white man who was a member of her own party. Anna Paulina Luna, or APL as she’s sometimes called, would be flipping that district from blue to red.

And Luna, unlike AOC, is unabashedly conservative. 

While her mother still hasn’t gotten on the Trump train, Luna said that coming to see her speak at political rallies has been eye-opening for her mom and has helped her broaden her ideas about who is — and who can be — a Republican. 

“She came to a few Turning Point events,” said Luna, referring to the grassroots conservative organization, “and saw that there were women and men and black and white and Hispanics. … And she obviously knew that I wasn’t a white supremacist.”