The GOP's New Strategy to Win Hispanic Votes

The all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus rejected Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo’s membership bid.

If you were crafting a political platform to appeal to Hispanic voters, Marco Rubio’s wouldn’t be it. Though he’s Cuban-American, the Florida GOP Senate candidate supports the Arizona immigration law that has infuriated Latino groups nationwide. He supports making English the country’s official language. He opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He opposes a measure that would legalize undocumented youth if they attend college or enlist in the military. He even opposes counting illegal immigrants as part of the U.S. Census, which is used to help determine funding for states. All of which puts Rubio in line with the most right-wing elements of his party. “I don’t know of anyone that’s harsher than Rubio” on these issues, says Jorge Mursuli, president of Miami-based Democracia, a Latino advocacy group. “It’s really unconscionable.”

Yet Rubio appears to be doing just fine among Florida’s Hispanic voters. Though recent polls have been erratic in measuring that support due to small sample sizes, it’s “safe to say that he’s going to win the Latino vote by a healthy margin,” says Dario Moreno, a professor at Florida International University. Two other Hispanic GOP candidates running in statewide races—Susana Martinez in the New Mexico governor’s race and Brian Sandoval in the Nevada governor’s race—have also taken hardline stances on immigration. And they, too, seem to be capturing significant Latino backing.

If these candidates win, which polls suggest they’re poised to do, they’ll surely set off triumphant cheers in Republican circles. The GOP will point to them as evidence that the party offers a welcoming home for Hispanics. And many of its strategists will likely assume that the path to Latino votes lies in running Latino candidates, even if those candidates’ stances diverge sharply from prevailing Latino sentiment on key issues. But it’s not quite that simple. This crop of contenders is succeeding for unique reasons: the characteristics of their particular states, for instance, and the way they’ve framed the discussion. To conclude that they offer a winning formula for Republicans to woo back Hispanics—who have defected from the party in droves, partly because of some of its members’ harsh rhetoric about immigrants—would be, at best, premature.

Cuban-Americans, the most powerful Latino constituency in Florida, have been voting reliably Republican since the 1960s. Even though they’re now outnumbered by more-moderate non-Cubans, they still turn out disproportionately on Election Day. Moreover, they, along with Puerto Ricans, the second-largest Hispanic group in the state, don’t face the same immigration woes as, say, Mexicans in California. Cubans can qualify for residency a year after arriving in the United States, and Puerto Ricans are born American citizens. “We don’t have even a fraction of the challenges on the immigration front as folks in the border states,” says Tony Calatayud, the Cuban-American chairman of Conservadores, a new Miami-based organization that supports conservative candidates, including Rubio. “That’s why Marco stands his ground [on immigration matters] and is really not affected by the backlash of Hispanic groups.”

Latinos in New Mexico also have a distinct profile. Only 16 percent of them are foreign born, and many of the remainder come from families who have lived in the state for centuries. For them, “immigration, in terms of their personal relationship to it, is pretty far removed,” says Gabriel Sanchez, a professor at the University of New Mexico. That helps explain why gubernatorial candidate Martinez has suffered little fallout for her get-tough-on-the-border ads and her opposition to granting driver’s licenses to undocumented people. Polls have shown her capturing about 30 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote, says Sanchez, which is “very strong for a Republican candidate for governor.”

In Nevada, the situation is just the opposite. Latinos are fairly new to the state, and 44 percent are immigrants, including many who lack documentation. “We have such a transient population,” says Kenneth Fernandez, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “There’s not a really strong tie to the Democratic Party,” he says. And the Hispanic population in the state is “not as politically active.” Sandoval has come out in favor of the Arizona immigration law, and when asked by a Univision reporter how he’d feel if his kids were stopped and asked to prove their citizenship, he reportedly replied, “My children don’t look Hispanic.” (He later claimed not to remember making such a comment.) Fernandez thinks Sandoval will capture at least a third of the Latino vote, though he attributes that more to the community’s political detachment and the anti-Democratic mood in the state than to the candidate’s inherent appeal.

Rubio and Martinez in particular have been savvy about framing their positions. Unlike some Republicans, who stridently denounce illegal immigration, Rubio always emphasizes that he’s “pro-legal immigration.” He regularly extols his parents’ journey to the U.S. and their climb up the economic ladder as an immigrant success story. As a result, says FIU professor Moreno, “the cultural issues mitigate [Hispanics’] disagreement with Rubio.” In the case of Martinez, a career prosecutor, she’s careful to cast her opposition to undocumented immigration as a law-and-order matter, says Sanchez. And the fact that she comes from southern New Mexico grants her legitimacy in discussing border issues.

Latinos respond favorably to such cultural connections. Not that they’ll necessarily vote for a candidate out of simple ethnic solidarity, but they may grant him or her more latitude. Rubio “is given a pass on some of these issues,” says Daniel Smith, a professor at the University of Florida. Some analysts suggest there’s an element of wink-wink going on when a Hispanic candidate takes a hardline stance on immigration. “A lot of Latino voters, when they hear Latino candidates talk like that, don’t really believe it,” says Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, who adds that this is merely a theory and that he hasn’t seen data to back it up. “They assume the candidate is talking like that because they need to,” he says.

Rubio, Martinez, and Sandoval have scrambled the script for Latino Republican politicians, who typically support offering a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. That includes Florida’s three Cuban-American members of Congress and former senator Mel Martinez, whose seat Rubio is vying to fill. Yet it’s myopic to presume that “there’s some uniform Hispanic view” on things, says Alex Burgos, a Rubio spokesman. “The No. 1 issue in the Hispanic community is economic empowerment, and [Rubio] is essentially running on that.” This midterm election will test just how ideologically diverse the Latino electorate is, says Moreno (according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center poll, 65 percent plan of Hispanics to vote Democratic in November, while 22 percent plan to vote Republican). If these emerging conservatives win, and capture sizable chunks of the Hispanic vote doing so, how will the major national Latino organizations, which are dominated by Democrats, react? As Moreno summarizes the dilemma, “Do you denounce them as traitors, or try to embrace a broader Hispanic agenda?”

If that agenda involves policies that Latinos largely believe dehumanize immigrants, it may be a tough sell—which goes to the heart of the Republican predicament. After several election cycles in which the party has alienated the nation’s fastest-growing demographic, it essentially has two choices, says Sanchez: “either change your policy stances, or try to find candidates like” Rubio, Martinez, or Sandoval, who may be able to pick up Hispanic support. For now, the GOP has opted for the latter, a move that has generated no shortage of skepticism. “It’s very difficult to put the onus on a couple of these candidates after all the years of demonizing [blacks and Latinos],” says Smith. “These actions speak louder than a few token minorities at the top of the ticket.” The candidates would surely bristle at being characterized that way. Perhaps they can exact their revenge by proving him wrong.