Serenading the Latino Vote

Texas Senator Ted Cruz made history recently by becoming the first Hispanic ever to declare a run for the presidency under the GOP banner. But the Canada-born son of a Cuban immigrant father has a decidedly hard-line stance on immigration, and that, say political observers, will be detrimental to him and any other Republican candidate who comes along trying to court the votes of the nation’s fastest-growing group: Latinos.

“For a Republican Party intent on avoiding the mistakes of the 2012 cycle, when Mitt Romney and the primary field’s run to the anti-immigrant right destroyed their viability in the general election, the official entry of Cruz into the field should be cause for concern,” says Maribel Hastings, Senior Advisor at the immigrant rights group America’s Voice.

“The GOP has gone backwards and tossed aside the gains George W. Bush made with the Latino vote.”

Some Republicans agree, including Danny Vargas, president of the marketing firm VARCom Solutions, as well as a former chair of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. Vargas tells LATINO that GOP inaction on immigration reform is not only a loss for 2016 but in years to come. “If the party does nothing on immigration reform, it will lose the White House for at least a generation. If we don’t get this right, we can kiss the White House goodbye for the next 20 years.”

The first hurdle a Republican candidate would have to overcome is the primary, which tend to attract the more conservative voters and make it harder for a more moderate candidate to pull it off. For instance, conservatives booed former Florida governor Jeb Bush at the recent gathering in suburban Washington of the Conservative Political Action Conference when he urged the Republican Party to reach out to voters who felt alienated by Republican policies. He spent several minutes of his speech to CPAC talking about immigration, and that’s when the boos were the loudest.

“I know there is disagreement here,” Bush said. “But the simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 people. We should give them a path to legal status where they work, where they don’t receive government benefits, where they don’t break the law, where they learn English, and where they make a contribution to society.” Several dozen members of the audience walked out during that part of the speech, including a man dressed in colonial-era clothing and carrying a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag -- which is the symbol of the conservative Tea party movement – who yelled “No More Bushes!”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio addressed the same crowd, taking a different stance. Rubio was one considered a Tea Party darling, but that support went by the wayside when he signed on as one of the Gang of Eight legislators who supported a comprehensive immigration reform. At the CPAC gathering, Rubio told attendees he went about it completely wrong.

“You have 10 or 12 million people in this country, many of whom have lived here for longer than a decade, have not otherwise violated our law other than immigration laws, I get all that. But what I’ve learned is that you can’t even have a conversation about that until people believe and know, not just believe, but it’s proven to them that future illegal immigration will be controlled,” he said. A focus on border security first is the way to tackle the issue, Rubio emphasized. “[People] have to see it [border security] working, and then they’re going to have a reasonable conversation with you about the other parts, but they’re not going to even want to talk about that until that’s done first. And what’s happened over the last two years, the migratory crisis this past summer, the executive orders, that’s even more true now.”

Democratic consultant María Cardona says Republicans have “dug their own political grave” when they talk like that about immigration. “Republicans are completely blinded by their political ambitions and their anti-Obama agenda. But with each action against the president, they are digging their own political graves and damaging their aspirations for 2016. In fact, if they continue on this course, Republicans might as well give up now and forgo participating in the 2016 elections because our community certainly will not vote for them.”

Republican consultant Ken Oliver-Méndez is president of MRC Latino at the Media Research Center in Washington, D.C. The former Romney campaign advisor disagrees that Latino support for Republicans is a lost cause in 2016: “CPAC doesn’t elect the Republican nominee. The party is much broader than that and Hispanics are more conservative and align with the Republican Party on many issues. We are engaging more with the community and gathering more support.”

Republican consultant Leslie Sánchez agrees. “Anyone who thinks it’s a lost cause needs to open up a map. People have been saying for a long time that going after the Latino vote in the Republican Party but it has had made a difference in battleground elections and high impact elections. The people who make disparaging remarks about Latinos represent just a tiny fraction of the GOP. It’s a small group of individuals who have sidelined the party,” Sánchez tells LATINO. “There is no tolerance in the party for anti-Hispanic rhetoric,” adding that the party should remind the community more often that the last serious immigration reform effort was indeed done under a Republican president, but that the party should also focus on the other issues it has in common with the Latino community and do more outreach. People are looking for leadership, for solutions. Tell them where you stand and stay there.”

José Mallea, National Strategic Director of the Libre Initiative, agrees. While Libre is an officially non-partisan advocacy group, their support of limited government and free entreprise align with many of the Republican core principles.

“The issues that we talk about, economic prosperity, economic freedom, for example, those are issues Latinos want to talk about. Immigration is an important issue and it’s a mistake not to do anything about it, but is it the most important issue in the Latino community? No. We can’t focus just on that.”

While polls showed that a majority of the Latino community supported President Obama’s executive action on immigration, Libre wasn’t one of them cheering it on.

“It’s a cop out and works against a permanent solution. The right thing to do is the hard thing to do, and we’re going to continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. An executive order is not the way to go about it,” says Mallea.

In the 2014 presidential election, Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, but in a number of key races they supported Republican candidates. In Texas, for instance, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott won with 44 percent of the Latino vote. In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal was reelected with 47 percent of the Latino vote, and in Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback received more Hispanic support than did his Democratic counterpart.

Some analysts have suggested that Republican support among Latino voters in 2014 was in part backlash over President Obama’s lack of movement on immigration reform, in particular his decision to postpone any action until after the elections. Obama did issue an executive order on immigration, and while most Latinos support this, others don’t consider it enough.

This is echoed by conservative columnist Rubén Navarrette, who counts Senator Cruz as a “friend.” Navarrette recently wrote that “despite what the polls say, not all Hispanics support Obama’s executive action because they oppose illegal immigration as much as other Americans.”  But Navarrette agreees with what political observers have been saying. “Republicans don’t have to turn themselves inside out, but they need to deal with immigration with more honesty, nuance and common sense. They should stop attacking immigrants because they’re frustrated by the government’s response to illegal immigration. And they should pick on people their own size by going after employers. They need to adopt a zero tolerance policy the next time a Republican official says something racist or nativist,” Navarrette wrote in a recent column. “(Hispanics) are really furious at Republicans for that party’s efforts to demagogue this issue in order to scare up votes from white people.”

According to Vargas, immigration reform is the key issue. After all, the last significant movement on immigration happened under a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, who signed legislation that granted a path to legalization to some three million undocumented immigrants. And the GOP would be wise to take that into account. Vargas concludes that the party leadership has not done enough to shut down the virulent anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic voices: “There is an element of the party that we will never get. They will never agree. It’s a small fraction, but it’s been allowed to continue. Criticizing them and telling the Latino community and everyone else that these people do not represent the Republican Party just isn’t happening enough. There is just so much fear out there but I have zero tolerance for those xenophobes. They don’t represent the Republican Party at all,” says Vargas, “but the leadership hasn’t been aggressive enough in clamping down and denouncing the inflammatory rhetoric espoused by some very vocal members of the party.”

 By Patricia Guadalupe