How Hispanic voters’ growing political power in Nevada could offer hope to the GOP


Las Vegas

Antonio Munoz remembers admiring Ronald Reagan as a child, in a Las Vegas very different than it is today.

“When I was born here it was very small,” Munoz said. “The communities were kind of segregated. You had your Hispanics on one side of town, your African Americans another side of town. Then you had the strip and downtown, which was very small resorts, small hotels. But now we have mega resorts.”

Something else has changed. Hispanics were just 7% of Nevada’s population when Reagan was elected but are 30% now.

“It’s amazing the political power that Hispanics are creating here in the state of Nevada,” Munoz said during a break at his Vegas restaurant, 911 Taco Bar.

It is a political power with the potential to remake the 2024 electoral map. Nevada has backed the Democrat for president in four consecutive elections – but only by 2 points in 2020. There is evidence of modest GOP inroads with Hispanic voters in both 2020 and 2022 election data, and it is not hard to find signs of an opening for further Republican gains in 2024.

CNN traveled to Nevada – a key battleground next year – as part of our project tracking the 2024 campaign through the eyes and experiences of voters.

Munoz is an independent who says his presidential voting record is about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with a third-party vote in 2016. He declined to answer when asked about his 2020 vote.

“Why? Because the nature, the nature of society right now,” he said. “We’re a small business and they will attack you. They will attack you just because you support a certain candidate and it’s sad.”

His two adult sons are split, one for President Joe Biden and one for former President Donald Trump, who’s the front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2024. Munoz says he is truly undecided, though he takes sharp issue with Trump’s tone about Mexicans and immigrants.

“It hurts, it hurts,” Munoz said. “You know, sometimes we speak out of turn, maybe he does it more than others.”

Still, Munoz said, “Trump did some good stuff for businesses that actually helped us out as a small business. And I think Biden’s done the same thing for us.”


Antonio Munoz speaks to CNN’s John King at his restaurant 911 Taco Bar in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The 911 Taco Bar is in a marketplace called the Mercado – a mix of vendors in a space once occupied by JCPenney in a Vegas shopping mall. The restaurant was “a dream,” Munoz said, while serving a decade in the Air Force and then 16 years as a Las Vegas police officer. Munoz also has 15 taco trucks for a catering service. He said his anecdotal evidence from listening in the community backs up polling that suggests Latino voters are more open to supporting Republicans than they were in the past.

“I think it is going to be a very interesting year,” Munoz said. “People are confused and, you know, if somebody comes out with that solid message, that would be great. Right now, I just don’t see it.”

Valeria Gurr is the face of the new competition here.

She was a Democrat who worked for the teachers’ union. Now, Gurr is a registered Republican who turns questions about immigration or the economy back to the issue she says will decide her vote for just about any office.

“I will vote for the candidate that supports my views on school choice,” Gurr said in an interview at her home in Henderson, a Vegas suburb.

It is a view shaped by her immigrant experience.

“I had only $600 and hope,” Gurr said of when she arrived from Chile in 2007.  “Without education, my career was going to be working in a labor job.”


Valeria Gurr speaks to CNN’s John King in Nevada.

Now, she is working on a doctorate degree in public policy and is an activist for school choice. She drives her 6-year-old son across town to a private school because she sees the local public schools as a dead end.

“It breaks me every time I see kids and moms that just want to provide for their kids and their only way out of poverty is with quality education,” Gurr said. “If you live in a low-income area, you have to send your kids to failing public schools.”

In 2020, her single-issue test led her to vote for Trump, with reservations.

“I did not vote for him because he was the perfect candidate,” Gurr said. “I voted for him because he supported educational choice.”

She said Trump’s record as president on the issue was disappointing. She also said she would welcome a change of heart from the Biden administration – which has prioritized investment in public schools – but believes most Democrats are afraid to anger teachers’ unions.

So she is hoping Republicans make a new choice.

“I like Ron DeSantis simply because of what he has done in Florida,” Gurr said of the Sunshine State governor. “I personally would love to see (former South Carolina Gov.) Nikki Haley – to have another mom in the White House who supports school choice.”

Interest rates and inflation are the pressing issues for Zoila Sanchez, a real estate agent in the Las Vegas area for 26 years.

“The economy is really bad,” Sanchez said. She did acknowledge prices are a little better lately, but said interest rates need to come down significantly before working families can afford a new or bigger home.

She did not blame Biden, though, citing economic cycles she called largely beyond the control of any president.

Sanchez, like Gurr, is a first-generation immigrant. She was undocumented when she entered the United States from Mexico, but was granted amnesty as part of legislation signed by Reagan in 1986.

Sanchez is conservative, religious and a registered Republican. But she has voted for Democrats in the last four presidential elections. Barack Obama inspired her, Sanchez said, and Trump repulsed her.

“He’s not a Republican,” she said. “I don’t know what he is. And then of course he offended me by saying all the things he said about Mexicans.”


Zoila Sanchez speaks to CNN’s John King in Nevada.

Sanchez twice voted for George W. Bush because he mixed calls for lower taxes and conservative views on many social issues with what she found to be compassionate talk about immigrants.

“It does not exist anymore,” Sanchez said of that Republican Party. “I would love it to come back. Yeah, that’s me.”

Like Gurr, Sanchez is a Haley fan.

“Because I think she could bring back that real Republican feeling, conservative – everything that it used to be.”

In a Biden-Trump rematch, Sanchez said she would vote for Biden.

But in a Biden-Haley matchup, “I would vote for Haley.”

Nevada, of course, also has a role in the nominating process. But Haley’s only chance there is for momentum, not delegates.

The party is holding both a caucus and a traditional primary, two days apart in early February.

Haley is not registered for the caucus, which is run by a state party organization full of Trump loyalists. Delegates to the national GOP convention will be allocated based on the caucus results. Haley will be on the primary ballot, where a strong showing might generate media attention and momentum heading into later nominating contests but will not offer any convention delegates.

The early GOP maneuvering is all a side show for Carlos Padilla, a pastry baker at the Treasure Island casino for the past 30 years.

“To be in a job that long and actually still love it, it’s awesome,” Padilla said in an interview at his townhouse apartment.

Rising rents are Padilla’s biggest complaint at the moment, and he said a good number of his co-workers are still not back at work, or back only part time, despite a giant comeback for the travel and hospitality business from the Covid-19 pandemic shock that sent Nevada unemployment as high as 30.1% in April 2020.

“Businesses are making record profits right now,” Padilla said. “They should do something for those who aren’t working right now.”


Carlos Padilla speaks to CNN’s John King during an interview in Nevada.

Padilla is a loyal Democrat and a volunteer foot solider for the politically powerful Culinary Union.

He has heard it all knocking doors, including disparaging remarks about Biden: “He’s too old. He’s going to be senile and not be able to do his job. That’s what I heard most.”

Padilla is ready to respond.

“He is the most pro-union president we’ve ever had,” he said. “And he’s really helped the middle class, the working class.”

The 2022 midterms were a mixed result for the union and its allies; Republican Joe Lombardo won the governor’s race, but Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto won reelection in a race that was a top GOP target. Lombardo made inroads with Latino voters, and Padilla expects a hard fight to keep Nevada blue in 2024.

If Trump is the GOP nominee, Padilla predicts health care will be a big issue. Trump recently vowed to try, again, to repeal Obamacare. Padilla gets his health insurance through work – and his union contract – but said past campaigns haven proven the issue holds sway with “working class people and they can’t afford insurance.”

Still, he sees at least a modest trickle of Latino support toward Republicans.

“I’ve seen it. But I’ve also, when I’ve knocked on doors and talk to the Latino voters, they’ve actually flipped, turned the other way,” Padilla said. “We’re the biggest organization that goes and knocks on doors. … So I think we have a big influence on trying to prevent them from flipping that seat.”

There is no question Nevada will be among the six to eight battleground states next year.

Biden just barely won Nevada in 2020, 50% to 48%, and Trump improved his standing a bit from 2016, in part by running a little better among Latinos.

Munoz, the 911 Taco Bar owner, said he is betting against the early odds that suggest a rematch.

“I think we are going to surprised,” he said with a smile and a nod. “I think we’ll be surprised.”

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