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Latino voters weigh abortion rights — and the economy — in a key congressional race

Sergio del Castillo calls himself a Democrat. On a windy Saturday outside Todo's Grocery Store in the outer Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., Del Castillo said his concerns over the economy, crime and school safety have tested his loyalty.

"They really haven't done what they promise," he said. "Both parties — not only Democrats."

Still, when it comes to the Supreme Court decision overturning a national right to abortion, Del Castillo, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico more than four decades ago, is unequivocal: "I was very disappointed," he said. "And I hope they change it again."

Republicans made inroads with Latino voters in the 2020 presidential race. But in a shift from the past, recent polling shows abortion and reproductive rights — issues emphasized by Democrats — have risen dramatically in importance for those voters ahead of this year's midterm elections.

Nationwide, Pew found abortion was a very important issue for 57% of Latino voters in August — up 15 percentage points since March. More than one in four Latino voters surveyed this month by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund listed reproductive rights as their top issue – up from around 4% in 2020, according to Dorian Caal, the group's director of civic engagement research.

The congressional district in Virginia that Del Castillo calls home is the center of a bellwether race on abortion rights. The contest in Virginia's newly drawn 7th Congressional District could determine whether the issue of reproductive rights could be enough to overcome what Latino voters overwhelmingly report is their overriding concern: the economy.

The race pits a Latina Republican law enforcement officer, Yesli Vega, against a Spanish-speaking former CIA officer, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va. The Democrat is defending her seat, albeit in a new district that does not overlap much with her current one, in the outskirts of Richmond, Va. The Cook Political Report recently moved its rating of the race from Lean Democratic to Toss-Up.

The new district, on the outer edge of the Washington, D.C., suburbs and the surrounding countryside, is less white and more diverse: roughly one in five voters identify as Latino.

Vega's win would make history, as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin noted at one of her campaign rallies last week: "We are going to smash all records and send the first Latino Virginian to Congress."

The standing-room-only crowd packed in a '90s themed restaurant roared as Vega skewered President Joe Biden, the media and "woke culture." She said she would "never co-parent with the federal government" and falsely claimed Spanberger wanted to "put parents in jail."

Vega's father is a minister, and at times her speech burned with righteous resolve: "What's been predestined for us in heaven, no man or liberal can take from us," she exclaimed.

In an interview after the rally, Marcia Fuentes, one voter in this district, said Vega's message struck a chord. Like Vega, Fuentes' father is a pastor and the two attended the same church as children. She said her faith guides all her decisions, including on abortion.

"Once you put a child in your womb, that's it," she said. "He needs to come to life, because nobody has the right to kill a child."

Fuentes says she'd like to see Congress ban the procedure. Vega seemed to agree during the Republican primary, sayingthat she found liberal states' abortion laws quote "unacceptable." When speaking to reporters after the event in October, Vega distanced herself from national abortion bans.

"They've reverted that back to the states," she said. "So it's a state issue. It's not a federal issue anymore."

Like other GOP candidates, Vega has shied away from talking about abortion after the June Supreme Court decision, especially after Axios published a recording of her seeming to downplay the risk of someone getting pregnant after a rape. Her team did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

In an interview, Spanberger said the comments were part of a broader trend of "extreme" rhetoric from Vega, who has questioned the validity of the 2020 election, defended people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and referred to the FBI as the "deep state."

"For a woman who may choose abortion — that is up to her and her medical professional," Spanberger said.

Spanberger said she believes that to also be true for pregnancies beyond 20 weeks — "catastrophic situations where a woman will die, or a fetus is not viable." She said Congress should act to codify Roe v. Wade if Democrats maintain control.

Abortion hasn't featured prominently in Spanberger's Spanish-language TV and newspaper ads, which focus on her goals of creating well paying jobs and reducing prices at grocery stores and the gas pump.

Still, Elena Lane said the overturning of Roe was one of the driving motivators to giving up her Saturday morning to knock doors for Spanberger in Prince William County. The Virginia realtor called the court's recent decision "terrible."

"I wanted to cry, because they took [away] the right [from] a woman," she said.

It's not lost on Lane that abortion is now legal in her native Mexico but not in her adopted home country. But it's not just abortion on Lane's mind. She said democracy itself is on the ballot, and that, more than anything else, keeps her firmly in the camp of Democrats.

Copyright 2022 VPM. To see more, visit VPM.