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Latino voter turnout is growing in Arizona. Senate hopefuls are trying to win support

Latino voters made up  roughly a quarter of Arizona voters who cast a ballot in 2020, according to NALEO Educational Fund, a nonprofit that works to increase Latino political participation. That's a nearly 20% increase in their share from 2016 and a roughly 58% increase in the number of Latino Arizonans voting from 2016.

But Junior Lopez, a boxing instructor in Phoenix, wasn't one of them.

He didn't vote in the midterms either.

So how did Lopez, a self-described political novice, end up hosting U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is running for the U.S. Senate, at his gym on the border of Phoenix and Glendale?

Lopez said he had questions.

"I kind of wanted to know, be informed a little bit of what's going on, [who] is he, what is he bringing to the community and stuff like that," Lopez said.

It's events like this one, which Lopez helped organize — a watch party for an all-Mexican boxing match over Cinco de Mayo weekend, where Gallego, a Democrat, ran focus mitt drills with local kids and mingled with potential voters — that are an opportunity to find answers.

And not just for Lopez.

Latino voter turnout is expected to swell in swing states like Arizona, a trend that voting data indicates should help Democrats like Gallego in his bid for the U.S. Senate.

Just like four years ago, nearly 1 in 4 Arizona voters in the upcoming elections is expected to be Latino, according to recent projections by NALEO.

Gallego seeks to engage Latino voters early in election cycle

In 2020, exit polls in Arizona showed that about 61% of Latino voters favored candidate Joe Biden over then-President Donald Trump.

"It's a good thing for us to know what's going on," Lopez said of the predominantly Latino community at his gym last Saturday.

"A little more information doesn't hurt nobody."

And findings from the research firm Equis,  shared with Axios, show that U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly slightly surpassed Biden's share of the Latino vote in his midterm victory two years ago.

But Gallego isn't counting on historical trends and is focused on connecting with Latino voters in ways that resonate with his own upbringing — like gathering with cousins and relatives for boxing matches on a Saturday evening.

"This is what I used to do with my family," Gallego said. "We would get off of work sites, my cousins and I, and if there was a boxing match, we'd go to the nearest bar or nearest place they would show it so we could watch boxing together. It was communal — it's a family thing."

To win over Latinos like Lopez, Gallego also believes he has to engage them — early and often.

In Lopez's case, that means reaching out in enough time for him to meet a July 1 voter registration deadline ahead of Arizona's July 30 primary.

Outreach in May may not seem early to some, but Gallego says it's early for when politicians usually focus on Latino voters.

"A lot of times, politicians ... they only talk to the Latino community in the last two weeks [before Election Day]," Gallego said. "And then they're surprised when we can't get their vote out or when they go vote for somebody else."

Latino conservatives: 'We might be small, but we still count'

Gallego's likely Republican opponent, Kari Lake, also sees untapped potential among Latinos voters.

And earlier that same Saturday, Lake made her own effort to beat Gallego to the punch.

Inside the Hotel Americana in Nogales, Arizona, a city of roughly 20,000 along the U.S.-Mexico border, a crowd sat ahead of a Latinos for Lake Rally, anxiously awaiting the Republican candidate's arrival.

Once she arrived, Lake never explicitly referred to Latino voters in her speech.

Candelario and Kimberly Adame, a couple who have attended previous Lake events in their hometown, said that's missing the point.

"It's more about our community," Kimberly said.

By that, she means they're less concerned about voting based on their identity and more concerned about issues specific to their community.

Lake's speech accomplishes that by touching on her usual campaign fare: She says the economy is in shambles, says immigrants are overwhelming border towns like Nogales, and decries the fentanyl crisis by highlighting local families irrevocably torn by substance abuse and death.

It's not so different from what Lake was saying when she visited Nogales while campaigning for Arizona governor two years ago.

But it's music to Candelario's ears.

"She's said it before, but every single time, I feel that power from her voice, man," he said. "It's something very, very refreshing even though I've heard it before. But it's, it's just powerful."

The Adames were born and raised in Nogales. They're well aware that, as Republicans, they're in the minority here.

In surrounding Santa Cruz County, voter registration records show Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1.

But Kimberly said she's ready for a different choice from the ones made by generations before them.

"We're so small, and we all were raised, 'Oh, well, our parents were Democrats — we have to be Democrats,'" Kimberly said. "But in reality, that's not how it is."

More than anything Lake said, the Adames believe that Lake's mere presence in a community that feels overlooked reaffirmed their support for her.

"We might be small, but we still count," Kimberly said.

And in November, every vote, however small the community, could decide the outcome.

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Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.