By Boris Sanchez and Alison Main, CNN
Updated: Sun, 17 Oct 2021 21:22:59 GMT
Leaning over a glass countertop displaying chorizo and carne salteada, Democrat Terry McAuliffe surveys the number of distinct nationalities he's encountered touring Todos Supermarket in northern Virginia.
"We got Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico," noted McAuliffe, who first visited the grocery chain in 2013, seeking to court Latino voters during his initial run for governor.
Moments later, he asks a butcher: "Have you voted yet?"
Amid an uptick in support for Republicans among the reliably Democratic-leaning demographic, McAuliffe recognizes that even a slight decline in support with Latinos could sink his chances against Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin come Election Day.
"It's critical that I get the Hispanic vote out here," he said, expressing confidence that his campaign's top issues — as well as his opponent's embrace of some of former President Donald Trump's policies — would draw the key demographic to him.
"I've always had great support in the Hispanic community. I fight for them every single day," he said, listing job creation, education and healthcare as his priorities.
Though President Joe Biden won nearly two-thirds of the Latino vote nationwide in 2020, former President Donald Trump outperformed expectations, leading to substantial gains for Republicans nationwide, including in Virginia, which has a growing Latino population.
While Biden won the group's support by 25 percentage points in Virginia, Trump increased his support among Latinos by six points in 2020, losing by a narrower margin than he did in 2016 to Hillary Clinton.
Officials on McAuliffe's campaign say they're not taking any chances, launching a six-figure Spanish language media campaign with ads on television, radio and online, along with dozens of outreach events in the community meant to sway undecided voters — like Carlos Castro, the owner of Todos Supermarket.
"I think the political establishment needs to understand that we don't want -- and we don't need -- special treatment," Castro said of Latino voters like himself.
A former undocumented immigrant, Castro immigrated to the United States in 1980, fleeing a civil war in El Salvador. He now employs hundreds of workers in multiple stores, and hosts visits from political candidates because he says he likes to offer "another opinion" to those vying for office.
"He truly is an American success story," McAuliffe said of Castro, who led him on a tour of the store and introduced him to employees.
Castro, who also hosted Youngkin in September, says his values align better with the GOP. But extremist rhetoric and discrimination toward immigrants like himself have turned him off.
"When we had good Republicans running the country, we had great opportunities, and we kind of like identified with a lot of them ... with the Democrats, we have some difficulties because some of them lean too much into social issues that only bring, you know, division," he said.
"Having all of this bad treatment from the Republican establishment, a lot of us have been forced to support candidates that show they care about the community and fortunately, it's been the Democratic Party lately," he added.
The role of Trump
As McAuliffe has tried to paint Youngkin as a "Trump wannabe," some voters, like Raul Velasco, see that as a selling point.
"It might seem wrong for other people, but if they said that Youngkin was more like Trump, I'm 100% with him," said Velasco, who says he cast his ballot for the Republican based on concerns about crime and illegal immigration.
Eager to replicate Trump's gains in 2020, Youngkin's campaign has sought to meet Latino voters where they are, holding more than 20 outreach events in the community and investing in Spanish language advertising and social media.
"The campaign's outreach is remarkable," said Daniel P. Cortez, co-chairman of the Latinos for Youngkin coalition, who voted for McAuliffe in 2013.
The disabled Vietnam veteran said he chose the "lesser of two evils" when he cast his ballot for the former governor because he opposed Republican Ken Cuccinelli's stances on birthright citizenship and speaking only English in the workplace, which he says he found "reprehensible."
But Cortez, who identifies as an independent, says he voted his pocketbook when he chose Trump last fall.
"I looked, as an independent voter, at who best could bring jobs to the nation, and I cast my vote for the conservative ticket. And it proved to be worthy because job-wise the economy skyrocketed," he said, encouraging other Latinos to do the same this year.
This year, he cites critical race theory as "the most critical issue." The concept has been around for decades and that seeks to understand and address inequality and racism in the United States. It's not part of K-12 instruction in Virginia, but that hasn't stopped Republicans from seizing on it as a political flashpoint.
Youngkin has pledged to ban the theory from schools on his first day in office. McAuliffe calls the GOP focus on the matter a racist dog whistle.
Cortez said he sees the concept as discriminatory. Ultimately, he just wants to see race left out of things.
"This is not about race, I'm tired of dealing with racial politics -- in the previous election and this election. Voters are tired. They're going to vote their pocketbooks, and they're going to vote their integrity," he explained.
Health care and the pandemic
Health care also remains a central issue amid a global pandemic, with Castro citing it as one of the most important issues to his employees, who have worked on the frontlines for the past year and a half.
Latino Virginians have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. According to state data released earlier this year, the number of coronavirus cases among Latino residents doubled those in White residents. Latinos were about two-and-a-half times more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die due to the virus.
McAuliffe hopes his policies to expand Medicaid and support paid sick days appeal to Latino voters, but the debate over vaccine mandates has dominated the political discourse.
The candidates are firmly split on the issue: McAuliffe would mandate covid vaccines for students, teachers and health care workers, while Youngkin is staunchly against requirements.
McAuliffe has slammed Youngkin's position as "disqualifying," adding, "I think the Hispanic community knows that I'll keep them safe."
But Cortez said Youngkin's hands-off approach is what appeals to him most about the Republican's pandemic leadership.
"He's got the shots, I've got all my shots. I encourage everyone to get their vaccinations, their covid shots, and we're better off for it. But I don't think government should be mandating every aspect of my life," he said.
Other voters are more concerned about what comes after all ballots are counted — and whether candidates will remember the community's concerns long after Election Day.
"Either Democrat or Republican, they tend to forget about us," said Luz Hernandez, a shopper at Todos Supermarket. "We want them to remember how important Latinos are and how we've contributed to the nation."