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House Democrats have a new strategy to engage voters of color in the midterm elections

Democratic congressional candidate Rochelle Garza speaks with voters in Brownsville, Texas, in September. Many Latino voters in South Texas turned against Democrats during last year's presidential election — and winning them back could prove critical to the party's hopes of retaining control of Congress during next year's midterms.
Eric Gay
Democratic congressional candidate Rochelle Garza speaks with voters in Brownsville, Texas, in September. Many Latino voters in South Texas turned against Democrats during last year's presidential election — and winning them back could prove critical to the party's hopes of retaining control of Congress during next year's midterms.

Updated November 17, 2021 at 9:22 AM ET

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is launching a new, multimillion-dollar effort to engage and mobilize voters of color ahead of the midterm elections, including investments in local organizing and a seven-figure research and polling effort.

The plan, the details of which were shared first with NPR, includes an initial $30 million investment to hire local community organizers, launch targeted advertising campaigns aimed at nonwhite communities, as well as building voter protection and education programs. The committee is also working to combat disinformation efforts that are specifically focused on voters of color.

The announcement comes as Democrats are preparing to defend their slim congressional majorities in 2022, and as many in the party are still assessing their unexpected losses in significant elections this month. It is an early signal of how national Democrats plan to work to ensure that the racially diverse coalition that elected President Biden and delivered victories in key states across the country that gave Democrats a bare Senate majority shows up again.

"What we have learned from studying the 2020 election is when we invest in communities of color, it pays real dividends," New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview.

The announcement is also an indication that party leaders are aware that the broad, racially diverse coalition of voters that elected Democrats must be engaged consistently, and must not be treated as monolithic groups. While Democrats won the White House last year, they lost ground among nonwhite voters without a college education. Biden's campaign faced criticism over mixed results among varied segments of the Latino electorate, missteps that were blamed for setbacks in critical states like Florida and Texas, where a number of key House races will be decided in 2022.

Democrats are also facing aggressive redistricting by Republicans in some states, as well as souring approval ratings for the president and the Democratic Party.

Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams, a freshman who is leading the committee's efforts around voting rights and voter education, said that "we can't just show up in a community and expect people to listen to us and turn out overnight."

Williams, who is also the chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, said that recent Democratic victories in her state were the result of years of aggressive — and consistent — work.

"And I had a novel idea, what if we did year-round organizing and continued to bring information to the voters and continued to let voters know how Democrats were delivering for them? That's what we did in Georgia, that's how we won in Georgia, and that's what we're doing with the DCCC," Williams said.

Maloney said that as part of the Building our Base Project, he wants "boots on the ground much earlier, not just showing up at election time, and putting the resources behind it with a culturally competent, diverse team that knows what it's doing."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee itself was the subject of complaints over diversity in its leadership, prior to Maloney's tenure as chairman. The committee says its staff is currently comprised of nearly 50% people of color, and the senior leadership team is 71% people of color. The DCCC also elevated Tasha Cole, the deputy executive director for diversity, equity and inclusion, as a member of the senior leadership team and added Missayr Boker to lead the committee's independent expenditure. Boker is the first Black person and person of color to hold that role.

Democrats are fighting disinformation and voting restrictions

The committee also plans to target Republican efforts to spread misinformation, as well as to cast all Democratic candidates as far-left. The committee says it will have a particular focus on social media platforms frequently used in communities of color. Voters of color were flooded with disinformation in the days leading up to the November 2020 election, and some Democrats say the party didn't do enough to combat it.

"It's not enough to just wave it away and pretend it doesn't matter. We need to take these lies and distortions seriously," Maloney said. "We need to have a robust effort to counter that disinformation, and we need to do research so we understand exactly how to do that without turning off our most reliable voters."

The Democratic National Campaign Committee is also launching its own voter protection team and increasing its efforts to educate voters. Federal voting rights legislation remains stalled in the Senate, despite repeated attempts by Democrats to pass bills in response to a wave of state-level laws championed by Republicans that restrict ballot access. Democrats and voting rights advocates say those laws have a disproportionate impact on people of color.

"We're making sure that we are doubling down on making sure that people know how to navigate all of these new rules and new laws, and making sure that any roadblocks to the ballot box are 'un-hurdled' by the DCCC," Williams said. "We should not have to out-organize our way out of voter suppression, but we're not giving up."

Republicans are trying to counter Democrats with diverse candidates

House Republicans have been taking cues from Democrats in many ways when it comes to candidate recruitment in recent years as they focus on a more diverse slate of recruits. The National Republican Congressional Committee says this year that nearly 90% of its 70 target districts have a female, veteran or minority candidate already filed to run.

It's a strategy the GOP used in 2020 when it was able to significantly narrow Democrats' majority in the House, even as Republicans lost control of the Senate and White House.

Asked about Republican recruiting efforts, Maloney said the House Republican Caucus "is not a diverse group of people that represents the full mosaic of the United States."

"What I can tell you is that we will field a truly diverse group of candidates. And I should point out, that some of our candidates who are running in the toughest districts are people of color, and we know that they have done an extraordinary job of telling their story and bringing voters to their cause."

Maloney ticked off the names of a number of Democratic incumbents of color: Reps. Lucy McBath of Georgia, Antonio Delgado of New York, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut and Lauren Underwood of Illinois.

"They have all done an extraordinary job of winning tough districts that are not diverse. And so we believe, absolutely in our hearts, that our diverse candidates are our true strength, not just in districts that are diverse, but in some of the most competitive districts of the country," he added.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.