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In Health Care, Some Organizers Find an Issue to Spur Hispanic Voters

In three of Texas' most populous counties, organizers are working to use Hispanic support of affordable health care to spur a movement they think could change the state’s electoral tide. Republicans suggest the issue ranks far behind unemployment and the economy — areas where they say their policies have the market cornered.

Chris Ornelas, a Texas Organizing Project employee, speaking with Armando Rodriguez while canvassing in San Antonio's west side on Sept. 4, 2014.

SAN ANTONIO — When Armando Rodriguez opened the front door of his home here on the city’s west side, Chris Ornelas of the Texas Organizing Project met him with one question.

“What are some of the biggest concerns you have in your life right now?” Ornelas asked in Spanish.

Health care, Rodriguez replied, and whether his family could afford it.

The conversation was familiar for Ornelas, who goes door to door to talk to residents as part of efforts by the Texas Organizing Project to increase voter participation among minorities. The group’s field organizing team often meets minority voters who list health care as a top concern, and it is looking to leverage that issue to get more Hispanic voters to the polls in November.

Since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2009, Republican leaders in Texas have opposed expanding Medicaid to cover poor, uninsured adults, saying the system is broken and should be overhauled before it is expanded. The issue of Medicaid expansion resonates strongly with Hispanics, who make up a large portion of the state’s uninsured population.

In Harris, Dallas and Bexar counties — three of the state’s most populous counties — The Texas Organizing Project is working to use Hispanic support of affordable health care to spur a movement that could change the state’s electoral tide.

The group’s leaders said they believe their efforts, which include 200 canvassers and phone bankers, will be successful because the individuals they are working with are receptive to candidates who support the federal health law regardless of political affiliation.

“These aren’t people who are worried about turning Texas blue,” said Ginny Goldman, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, which has endorsed Democratic candidates who are supportive of the health care law. “Not only will we support Republicans who are on our side of the issues, but we’ll take on Democrats who are not.”

For their part, Republicans are prioritizing the economy and jobs — issues on which they say their party holds the upper hand — to reach Hispanic voters. They point to polling data indicating that job security and the economy resonate with Hispanic voters.

“Health care is a concern among all Texans — not just Hispanics,” said David Zapata, Hispanic engagement director for the Republican Party of Texas. “However, what we’re seeing is that jobs and the economy continue to dominate voters’ concerns.”

As the state’s Hispanic population continues to grow, both major political parties are honing their messages to reach this swelling voting bloc. Although less than a third of eligible voters in Texas are Hispanic, they are expected to make up a plurality of the state’s population by 2020 from 38 percent of the state’s population now.

Zapata said conservatives who oppose the federal health law stand to gain from the party’s outreach to Hispanic voters by focusing on the economy. Texas Republicans can promote the “economic success our state has experienced” under their leadership, he said.

Jim Henson, a Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said Hispanics overwhelmingly support almost all of the major provisions of the federal health law. But the issue ranks far behind unemployment and the economy as the top problem facing the state.

Henson said that while health care was not expected to be a driving force among registered Hispanic voters, those with lower incomes could be more sensitive to health care costs and efforts to mobilize on that issue.

“What we see is a pattern of support among Hispanics for much better health care delivery,” Henson said. “And, when necessary, for government to help improve that delivery.”

Hispanic voters also disapprove of the fines that most Texans will face if they do not buy health insurance under the federal law, and polling data shows they have been critical of its fumbled rollout. Zapata said Hispanic voters could also agree with Republicans on the Affordable Care Act’s “negative consequences,” including cases in which individuals have lost their doctors under new health care plans and high premiums they are left to pay for health coverage.

Political analysts are at odds on whether health care could be a driving issue among Hispanics whose voter turnout in Texas — much like the general population — has been dismal.

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, said Republicans would eventually have to compromise on health care issues with large support among Hispanics, like expanding Medicaid, if they want to be successful in coming elections in which Hispanics will carry increased electoral weight.

Matt Mackowiak, a conservative political consultant, said the health care debate could work for organizing groups like the Texas Organizing Project that are looking to “target certain constituencies very narrowly” to increase voter turnout. But he quickly added that Democrats looking to use the issue to their advantage are facing a losing proposition.

“The question is: Can Democrats motivate voters narrowly on the issue of health care?'” Mackowiak said. “If you’re asking me if health care as an issue is a net plus for Democrats in 2014, I think the answer is no.”

The organizing project’s goal for the year is to deliver more than 100,000 new minority voters and reach thousands of minorities who are registered to vote but do not turn out.

There is a large area for improvement in Hispanic voter turnout in Texas. In 2012, only 39 percent of Hispanics in Texas eligible to vote cast a ballot in the presidential election. In that same election, 61 percent of eligible white Texans voted.

The group’s leaders believe those voters could be motivated to head to the polls when they realize the polarity of positions on government-subsidized health care in the current election cycle. They also argue that Hispanics’ likelihood of being uninsured could favor their mobilization efforts as they organize around ways to make health care more affordable in a state where almost one out of every four residents is uninsured.

“When the numbers are on your side, this is a Latino problem,” the organizing project's Goldman said, speaking about the large number of Hispanics in the state who are uninsured. “We’ve got our numbers, and we’re going to leverage them.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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