Report

The GOP’s Latino Presidential Candidates Aren’t Solving Its Latino Problem

Rubio and Cruz give the GOP the first mainstream Hispanic candidates — but Trump is setting the tone toward Latinos.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI - FEBRUARY 23:  Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) holds a campaign rally at Lacks Enterprises February 22nd, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Rubio opted to campaign in Michigan rather than be in Nevada on the night of the Nevada caucuses. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
GRAND RAPIDS, MI - FEBRUARY 23: Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) holds a campaign rally at Lacks Enterprises February 22nd, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Rubio opted to campaign in Michigan rather than be in Nevada on the night of the Nevada caucuses. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

As the first two Hispanic Americans to viably run for the White House, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz should have the Republican Party roaring after its record losses among desperately needed Latino voters four years ago. There’s just one problem: Donald Trump.

Not only is neither lawmaker capitalizing on his Cuban background, but Trump has also turned it into something of a liability. The New Yorker has pushed the field so far right on immigration and border security that it’s no longer enough to just be against reform: Rubio is pushing for policies that would have kept his own immigrant parents out of the country, while Cruz has ratcheted up his nativist rhetoric and promised to deport the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. This scapegoating of the Latino community neutralizes what should be a powerful, natural advantage for Rubio and Cruz in the most important parts of the 2016 electoral map.

The latest evidence came Tuesday in Nevada, the first state in the presidential nominating process with a sizable — 28 percent — Latino population. Both Rubio and Cruz lost badly, including among Latinos, against a candidate who has called Mexicans “rapists” and criminals, has promised to deport millions, and wants to build a huge wall on the southern U.S. border.

Trump took 46 percent of the vote, winning almost every demographic. Rubio, who spent years of his childhood in north Las Vegas, came a distant second at 24 percent, and Cruz finished third with 21 percent.

Granted, Nevada is a small state whose confusing caucuses are known for low turnout, particularly among Latino voters. Among Latinos registered to vote in Nevada, 55 percent are Democrats, and just 17 percent are Republicans. The Nevada GOP reported that 37,000 Republicans registered for the caucuses — up from 2012 — but only about 8 percent of Hispanic voters turned out.

Still, according to exit polls by CNN and NBC News, Trump won some 45 percent of the Latino vote Tuesday, while Rubio garnered about 29 percent and Cruz around 18 percent.

“No. 1 with Hispanics, I’m really happy about that,” Trump gloated in his victory speech. “I have a lot of respect from Mexico, and you just heard we won Hispanics, but let me tell you, Mexico is going to pay for the wall.”

Looking ahead to Texas, Cruz framed himself Tuesday night as the only true conservative candidate and the one best poised to take down Trump. “The only campaign that has beaten Donald Trump, and the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump, is this campaign,” he said.

Rubio passed on making a concession speech. But by Wednesday morning, he was touting his “strong second” in Nevada. “The majority of the Republican electorate, the majority of Republican voters in this country, do not want Donald Trump to be the nominee,” he said. “I am the conservative that can unify the Republican Party.”

Beyond now being 0 for 4 in the first primary contests, the loss is deeply personal for Rubio, who spent part of his childhood in Nevada. While Trump’s name adorns a glittering tower just off the Las Vegas strip, Rubio’s mother worked as a maid at the Imperial Palace, a hotel and casino now called the Linq.

Ahead of the caucuses, Rubio banked heavily on these personal ties, aiming for his first primary win. His parents left Cuba just before Fidel Castro’s rise to power, in 1956, and moved to Miami. In the 1970s, the family moved to Las Vegas, where Rubio’s father bartended at Sam’s Town. Rubio says his time in the state showed him that with hard work, anyone can achieve the American dream.

Rubio is bilingual but rarely speaks Spanish in public speeches on the campaign trail. First elected to the Senate in 2010 as a conservative with Tea Party support, he has also distanced himself from his work with the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” on immigration reform. He dodges the political inconveniences of his record on immigration by instead framing it as a national security issue, calling for border security first. Cruz maintains that Rubio has a different message in Spanish and English on an Obama administration program to defer deportation for young immigrants living illegally in the United States, but on Feb. 18, he cleared up any doubts, saying: “I will, on my first day in office, get rid of it because it’s unconstitutional.”

Cruz, also elected to the Senate with heavy Tea Party backing in 2012, has made little attempt to reach out to Latinos. Instead, he has branded himself as a hard-line conservative willing to shut down the government over a range of issues from Obamacare to Planned Parenthood funding to deportation relief. He was born in Canada to an Irish and Italian mother and a father whom he says was tortured and imprisoned in Cuba before fleeing to the United States on a student visa in 1957. His campaign site quotes his father: “When we faced oppression in Cuba, I had a place to flee to. If we lose our freedom here, where do we go?”

Cruz was one of the earliest and loudest proponents of banning Muslim refugees from the war-torn Middle East. And while Rubio accuses him of flip-flopping on legal status for immigrants living illegally in the United States, Cruz boasts about obstructing his fellow senator and others from passing immigration reform, which he calls “amnesty.” In a Monday Fox News interview, he said anyone in the country illegally should be found and deported.

Both Cruz and Rubio largely have been careful about repudiating Trump or his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Failing to do so, however, could push the eventual GOP nominee too far to the fringes to overcome a Democratic opponent with a still sizable demographic advantage among Latinos.

“If a candidate is hedging, walking away from, and/or downright maligning the issue of immigration, or steering or feeding anxiety with it, Latinos understand … [that] it’s about stirring up sentiments against our community,” said Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, a deputy vice president at the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino advocacy group in the United States.

She noted that all candidates, on both sides of the aisle, readjust their platforms after the primaries to prepare for the general election. But, Martínez-de-Castro said, “how far have you walked a plank that sends a signal, ‘You don’t belong here in America, Latinos,’ and then be able to walk it back?”

Trump has showed no signs of pulling back. Now, he said, he’s ready to “put this thing away” after forecasting a “big win” in Nevada and on March 1, also known as Super Tuesday. Twelve states go to the polls that day, including Cruz’s own Texas, which awards 155 total delegates. Rubio’s Florida, a “winner takes all” state, comes two weeks later, with 99 delegates.

As of 2008, Nevada became one of the first four states in the presidential election calendar — an attempt to add more diversity earlier in the nominating process. The United States currently is roughly 17 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to the latest census data. Two Super Tuesday states have sizable Hispanic or Latino populations: Texas at 39 percent and Colorado with 21 percent. Florida is 24 percent.

If Nevada is any indication, Trump could sweep all three states — despite Rubio and Cruz’s Hispanic heritage. That has panicked Republican leaders in Washington who fear Trump will turn off the more moderate, independent, and minority voters the party will need to win the White House and hold on to their majority in the Senate. However, a new Washington Post/Univision poll released Wednesday night (though conducted Feb. 11-18, before former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dropped out) shows Rubio is most popular among Hispanics who plan to vote in the Republican primary.

Just three years ago, in its much touted 2012 election post-mortem, the Republican National Committee (RNC) warned: “Unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.”

This is not the change the party anticipated.

The report concluded that the GOP needed to consider “the unique perspective of the Hispanic community” and noted that states with large and fast-growing Latino populations — including Nevada, Colorado, and Florida — used to vote Republican but have increasingly turned Democratic.

The Pew Research Center projected a record 27.3 million Latinos are eligible to vote in 2016.

Even the billionaire libertarian fundraisers Charles and David Koch have repeatedly warned that Trump is bad for the Republican Party. Last September, the nonprofit Libre Initiative, a Hispanic outreach group that is backed by the Koch brothers, repudiated Trump’s extremist rhetoric. Its executive director, Daniel Garza, told Foreign Policy the group is politically neutral but predicted Rubio and Cruz could lead the party to historic gains among Latinos “if they leverage it correctly.”

On the Democratic side, meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is fiercely competing for the Latino vote and is believed to be concerned about facing Rubio in November. Reportedly on the short list of her potential running mates is Julián Castro, the current secretary of housing and urban development.

RNC Deputy Political Director Jennifer Sevilla Korn said Republicans have made substantial gains to reconnect with Hispanic voters after President Barack Obama won Nevada in 2008 and 2012. She noted Gov. Brian Sandoval, who is Republican and Hispanic, was re-elected in 2014 with more than 70 percent of the overall vote and 54 percent of the Hispanic vote. When he was first elected in 2010, he won only one-third of the state’s Latinos. Now, the White House is reportedly vetting Sandoval for a nomination to the Supreme Court — putting Senate Republicans on the spot and potentially sidelining the popular governor of a Hispanic-heavy swing state.

“The party has been accused before of not being diverse, and I think [Cruz and Rubio] turns it on its heel,” said Korn, who ran the RNC’s Hispanic engagement program in 2013.

So why aren’t Rubio or Cruz so far resonating with Hispanic voters in the Republican primaries?

Some of it has to do with demographics: Mexican-American voters in the southwest differ from Cuban-American voters in Florida, and first-generation Latinos differ from the electoral preferences of their younger counterparts. A recent Pew report found that more than 70 percent of Latino adults don’t think it is necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Latino, though 95 percent said it was important for future generations to speak it. Immigration is important, but not the top issue, trumped by education and the economy.

Yet the way a candidate talks about immigration is telling, said Martínez-de-Castro. Rubio masks his increasingly hard-line position on immigration with an optimistic message about American opportunity, while Cruz brandishes his “leading the fight” against “amnesty,” a word he utters gravely.

“For Latinos, it’s a weather vane of how candidates are regarding our community,” Martínez-de-Castro said.

With his business empire and vast ties to Nevada’s casino industry, Trump won nearly every demographic in Tuesday’s vote. Nearly 60 percent of Republican caucus-goers said they were angry at the federal government and about as many want the next president to come from “outside politics.”

Rubio, the GOP establishment’s preferred nominee, has to tread the most carefully. He has picked up the pace on securing endorsements, and polls indicate he is favored by voters who wait until just before elections to make up their minds. He’s also showcasing the diversity of his supporters: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, an Indian American, described Rubio’s high-profile endorsements in the Palmetto State as “a Benetton commercial” before he edged out Cruz and finished second to Trump in its Feb. 20 primary.

“I will never ask you to be angry at one group of Americans so that you vote for me,” Rubio said Monday in a thinly veiled swipe at Trump. “Because the president of the United States has to love all of the American people — even the American people that don’t love you back.”

Cruz, meanwhile, is doubling down on his hard-line immigration rhetoric. In a Monday interview with Fox News, he pledged to send federal officers to the homes of immigrants living illegally in the United States to deport them. “You better believe it,” he said.

It’s a risky move among an electorate where Korn said Latinos are a key swing vote.

“What it feels like on the Republican side is coliseum politics,” said Martínez-de-Castro, “and Latinos are the ones being fed to the lions.”

Photo Credit: Bill Pugliano / Stringer

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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