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Potential converts

Source: Jack Kurtz/Zuma Press/Corbis

Querer es poder

Rise of the Conservative Latinos

Why you should care

Democrats may want to dismiss Chris Christie’s success with Latino voters, but if they do, they may just miss out on one of the biggest and most influential voting blocks in 2016.

Chris Christie’s re-election as governor of New Jersey earlier this month sparked another round of speculation that he would run for president in 2016, and, this time around, that he might choose New Mexico’s Republican Governor Susana Martinez as his running mate . In the homestretch, Martinez stumped for Christie in areas of New Jersey densely populated by Latinos. Statewide, he won a majority of their votes, even more than the vaunted 40 percent that George W. Bush won in the 2004 presidential race.

Susana Martinez in blue suit speaking at podium

Source: Getty

Gov. Susana Martinez

Democrats dismissed Christie’s success among Latinos as an anomaly that was due to his charisma and praiseworthy response to Hurricane Sandy. They noted the different outcome in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who drew attacks for mentioning rat control and immigration policy in the same breath . Perhaps such parries and thrusts are only public pronouncements, and Democratic strategists behind the scenes are dissecting what happened. I hope so, because counting on your opponents to screw up isn’t a sound political strategy.

Counting on your opponents to screw up isn’t a sound political strategy.

Republicans are eager to avoid an embarrassment in 2016 like the one they experienced in 2012. They attributed Mitt Romney’s defeat in no small part to his poor showing among Latinos. Almost the morning after, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus began a hard and steady drumbeat calling for “Hispanic outreach,” a term that paints a picture of aimless Latino voters who are there for the plucking if candidates just show up. Last month, the RNC allocated $10 million to outreach , hiring directors such as Jennifer Sevilla Korn — the former director of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network — and sending foot soldiers to more than a dozen states to convert Latinos.

So far, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have captured most of the headlines, but with support from groups like the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, established in the late 1960s, and newer ones including the Latino National Republican Coalition and the Future Majority Caucus, scores of Latino conservatives have won elected positions across the country. The Future Majority Caucus wants to recruit more than 100 Latino Republicans to run for office in the near future, boasts about its multimillion-dollar fundraising successes and claims responsibility for helping to elect 15 new Latino Republicans in nine states in 2012 alone. This is the Latino conservative political machine at work.

Will a generally conservative platform that largely avoids appeals to the politics of ethnicity win the support of Latino voters?

As Latinos have spread across the country, so have Latino conservatives. Rep. Robert Cornejo hails from Missouri, Rep. Paul Espinosa from West Virginia, state Sen. Art Linares from Connecticut, and state Sen. Ernesto “Ernie” Lopez from Delaware. They’re lawyers, businesspeople and educators. Cornejo graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and is a partner at a law firm in Columbia. Espinosa is the general manager of a communications company and has served as president of a local Rotary Club and chamber of commerce. Before he ran for office, Linares volunteered for Sen. Marco Rubio. And Lopez is an administrator at the University of Delaware.

Thirty-something Rep. Marilinda Garcia of Salem, New Hampshire, is also on the way up , according to the RNC. She was first elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives at the age of 23, after graduating from Tufts University. Like other young Latino Republicans, Garcia aspires to higher office and is expected to run for the U.S. congressional seat currently held by Rep. Annie Kuster, a Democrat.

Marco speaking, standing left side of frame

Source: Getty

Marco Rubio

Some younger Latino Republicans identify with the histories that shaped Latino conservatism during an earlier era. The 25-year-old Linares says he’s influenced by his grandparents’ escape from Cuba after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.  But most up-and-coming Latino Republicans walk in step with new-wave conservatism. They advocate policies indistinguishable from the mainstream or far right elements of their party: pro-growth business measures, lower taxes, smaller government, curtailed entitlements, pro-life, school choice, anti-Affordable Care Act. The list goes on, begging the question: What’s Latino about them at all?

Some younger Latino Republicans identify with the histories that shaped Latino conservatism during an earlier era.

Many seem to want to pull the GOP more toward the center on comprehensive immigration reform, a goal supported by some 80 percent of Latinos. But legislators such as Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho, who bailed on bipartisan deliberations this summer , cast doubt on even this mildly moderating influence. Others, including Governor Martinez of New Mexico and Gabriel Gomez of Massachusetts, who lost his bid for a U.S. Senate seat earlier this year, emphasized that their bootstrapping work ethic and traditional religious beliefs somehow stemmed from their Latino upbringing. On her website, Marilinda Garcia mentions her mixed Italian-American and Spanish-American heritage . But more often, conservative Latinos eschew their ethnicity — note the absence of accents over their names — and any discernable connections with something that might be called Latino politics.

Will a generally conservative platform that largely avoids appeals to the politics of ethnicity win the support of Latino voters? Perhaps. This is another reason to take Christie’s success among Latinos seriously. Many have noted that Latinos aren’t a politically coherent group. To win their support requires microtargeting specific Latino communities. President Obama used this strategy to great effect, placing distinct ads among Cubans and Puerto Ricans in Florida, for example.

Woman with american flag on her head in color.

Source: Jack Kurtz/Zuma Press/Corbis

A woman uses an American flag for shade during an immigration reform march in Phoenix, October 2013. 

Clearly, Democrats aren’t just sitting at home on their hands, watching a tide of Latino conservatives roll over them. They’re fighting for immigration reform, economic justice, educational opportunity and other things that many Latinos care about.

At the same time, Republicans still have a long way to go. Poll after poll suggests that Latinos view them as less sensitive to their needs than Democrats. Latinos hold them responsible for blocking immigration reform and causing the government shutdown .

But as part of Christie’s re-election campaign, a Mexican American from New Mexico appealed — apparently successfully — to the largely Puerto Rican and Dominican Latinos of New Jersey, where Mexicans and Mexican Americans account for only 14 percent of the Latino population. Might this suggest the potential of a generically conservative crossover appeal? If I were a Democratic strategist, I wouldn’t bet that it doesn’t.

Geraldo L. Cadava teaches Latino and U.S.-Mexico borderlands history at Northwestern University. He is the author of Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland.

Cover Image: Getty

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