by Michael Torres
The battle for Hispanic voters in traditional Democratic strongholds is intensifying in Pennsylvania. Last month, the Republican National Committee opened a Hispanic community center in Allentown, the state’s third-largest city. It’s the sixth such center that the RNC has opened nationwide.
Allentown, once associated with steel and Mack trucks, is centered in the Lehigh Valley, now a booming region thanks to the warehousing and logistics sector. The politically competitive Valley is increasingly important to statewide elections, such as the upcoming races to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who lives near Allentown, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
Allentown is home to a large Hispanic population that dates to World War II, when Puerto Ricans arrived to work for Bethlehem Steel. Subsequent waves of Hispanic migration, especially from metro New York, transformed Allentown’s demographics. According to U.S. Census data, its Hispanic population grew from 42% of city residents in 2010 to become a clear majority, at 52.5% in 2020.
Now, heading into the 2022 midterm cycle, the GOP hopes to build long-term relationships with the city’s Hispanic population by offering the community center as a space to gather for recreational activities and political activism.
“We have a very interesting Hispanic community around here,” Jaime Florez, the Republican National Committee Director of Hispanic Communications, told me. “We have had a good outcome of Hispanic voters the last couple of cycles in this area. We want to improve that, and we want to be thankful for those who already show their interest in being part of the Republican party.”
For decades, Lehigh County has trended blue thanks to Allentown, the county seat. Joe Biden won Lehigh by 7% in 2020, Hillary Clinton won by 4.7% in 2016, and Barack Obama prevailed by 7.6% and 15% in 2012 and 2008, respectively. Today, Republicans believe the current economic climate offers an opportunity to close the electoral gap.
“One thing that’s common in every community center, no matter where you are, is the economy,” said Florez. “The economy has been very, very bad for a lot of people who cannot get jobs or can’t get jobs that they had before the pandemic. They see prices rising astronomically –gas prices, food, cars.”
The growing economy during the Trump years was a boon to Americans of Hispanic descent, opening the door for a higher proportion of these voters to feel comfortable supporting the Republican president in 2020 than 2016.
For example, according to election data analyzed by the Allentown Morning Call, Biden won 74% of the vote in two city ward districts, which are both about 78% Hispanic. While that may seem like a healthy victory, Hillary Clinton won 83% of the vote in those wards in 2016. This improvement for Trump in Allentown was mirrored nationwide. Politico’s review of election data found that Trump improved his margins in 78 of the nation’s 100 Hispanic-majority counties.
But some Allentown locals believe that the impact of the community center will be negligible.
“It’s not unusual to have Latinos who identify with some conservative views,” said Yamelisa Taveras, a resident of Allentown. “But the majority of Latinos that I encounter still hold Democratic views, such as social justice.”
Taveras is skeptical that the RNC will use the center for anything more than a short-term campaign office.
With inflation surging and Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate surpassing the national average, however, the RNC is adamant that it will have a constant presence within key Hispanic communities throughout eastern Pennsylvania.
“Every RNC community center has a dedicated staffer who is hired from within the community to build relationships with minority voters, recruit and train local volunteers to conduct voter registration, voter contact and turn out voters during get-out-the-vote,” said RNC spokeswoman Allie Caroll.
“No PR stunt will change their [Republicans’] record of working against our Latino families,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Party spokesman Brendan Welch. “Meanwhile, President Biden and Democrats have helped to create over six million new jobs, lower costs for families, make unprecedented infrastructure investments in our communities, and help lead us out of the pandemic.”
The Democratic Party plans to open its own office in Allentown this spring.
While Taveras welcomes the competition to earn Hispanic citizens’ votes, she says both parties should focus more on including Hispanics within their ranks as candidates.
“When it comes to the Democrats here in Lehigh County, the party does not represent the community at all,” she said. “It’s difficult to say, ‘Yes, I’m going to vote blue’ when you see that the candidates the party supports aren’t really representing the community they’re seeking to serve.”
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