Arizona’s Santa Cruz County on the Mexican border is what Republican operative Sergio Arellano jokingly calls “Democrat heaven.” Only 16 percent of voters are registered as Republicans. More than 80 percent of the population is Latino.
Arellano has been trying to lure more of these voters to the GOP, but this campaign season has been tricky.
“What we encounter on the grass-roots is, ‘Republicans are racist. Republicans and Trump want to deport everybody, want to build the wall,'” said Arellano.
Arellano, who is 33 and the son of Mexican immigrants, pushes back on this characterization of his party. He tells people a secure border will also protect Mexican migrants from being exploited or kidnapped by criminal organizations. He emphasizes that Republicans stand for creating opportunity and jobs.
“Jobs, jobs, jobs is what we’re standing firm with, and that’s what the people want,” said Arellano, who works for the Republican National Committee and Arizona Republican Party.
Arellano and his fellow Republicans need every vote they can find in Arizona this year. The growing Latino electorate here is credited with helping to turn conservative Arizona into a potential swing state this cycle. Arizona last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996, but Hillary Clinton’s campaign is spending millions there and sending high-profile surrogates to win the state away.
Challenging Democratic control
Last month, the Arizona Republican Party opened a campaign field office here in the city of Nogales less than a mile from the border with Mexico. It’s the first time in recent memory Republicans have made such an effort in this area where Democrats have long maintained local control.
“The vote is taken for granted by Democrats,” Arellano said about Santa Cruz County. “We’re here to bring an alternative point of view.”
Arellano and his team go door to door talking to voters. They are targeting infrequent voters, independents, Republicans and conservative Democrats.
A first-time voter named Blanca Castro answers the door, and Arellano fluidly switches into Spanish to ask whom she is supporting.
Castro said she is from Mexico and recently naturalized. She is backing Clinton.
Arellano tells her Donald Trump will bring jobs, but Castro isn’t persuaded. And that’s hardly surprising. Some polls show fewer than 20 percent of Latinos support the Republican nominee. Many have not forgiven Trump for saying that Mexico is sending rapists and criminals across the border.
“You have to understand, I’m Mexican, and at least Clinton isn’t racist,” Castro said.
However, Castro does support a local Republican candidate for county supervisor.
Arellano has heard it all before. In his book, this interaction was a partial success. “Democrat for president, Republican for supervisor,” Arellano said of Castro’s picks.
Some GOP gains with Latinos
The Republican supervisor candidate in this district is Mike Melendez, a recent convert to the GOP.
Melendez can often be found at the party’s brand new Nogales campaign office. He owns the building and sells crafts from his native Mexico out of this store, but this campaign season he is renting out much of it to the Arizona Republican Party.
Displays of colorful Mexican tiles, mirrors and metal animals still greet visitors when they first walk in. Occasionally tourists wander in to shop.
A handful of volunteers, most of them young, Latino and bilingual, made phone calls to voters.
Outside, the slogan “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” is hand-painted in colorful letters along with the American flag and names of Republican candidates.
Melendez is sick of what he says is a sluggish economy here in Nogales. The three current county supervisors are all Democrats. Melendez is challenging a long-term incumbent.
He believes there are more Latinos like him ready to switch parties because they haven’t been properly introduced to the Republican Party.
“I didn’t understand why was I a Democrat,” Melendez said. “Because everybody here locally was Democrat or still thinks that they are, but they are thinking Republican, family values and for pro-life.”
That’s the same message Sergio Arellano brings to voters when he goes door to door. He likes to say Latinos are Republicans, but just don’t know it yet.
At one house, a 20-year-old named Yolanda Mejia came to the door. She is Mexican-American and an independent. She wears a uniform for her waitressing job at a local sports bar.
“I always said that if Bernie never made it I was just going to go for Trump, because he is a better alternative than Hillary,” Mejia said.
Bingo. Arellano invites Mejia to come down to the campaign office and join his team.
“I feel happy,” Arellano said leaving Mejia’s house. “Pretty good. But I don’t want her to stop at Trump. I want her to fill out the whole ballot Republican.”
No matter what happens in the presidential race, Arellano hopes his work will build inroads for the GOP with Latinos in this part of Arizona.