This Is How The Republican Party Plans To Gain Ground With Latino Voters
A substantial increase in budget, double the staff focused on Latino outreach, and a blueprint based off big 2014 wins in Florida and Colorado. But will starting earlier than ever in Latino communities be enough to fix its damaged brand with them?
Brennan Linsley / AP
Maria del Carmen Weese, a retired volunteer with the Colorado Republican Party, was skeptical.
It was June 2014 and she was getting ready to hear the Republican National Committee (RNC) blueprint for reaching Latino voters in the state in the midterm elections. She had seen this before, of course, the word outreach being thrown around, but then as soon as elections are over, everyone packs their bags and leaves. So her request was simple: she would volunteer and work her ass off for the party if they would commit to staying past election day.
Jennifer Sevilla Korn, the RNC's deputy political director, who presented the blueprint, told her they would.
So Carmen Weese, 58, went to work. Colorado Republicans went to everything from the Peruvian festival to county fairs and events with churches and businesses, together totaling 70 events reaching 223,000 people between June and November, according to records the local party kept.
Republicans across the country won in a wave election for the party, but Colorado boasted two wins the RNC attributes to their strong Latino outreach. Cory Gardner defeated incumbent Mark Udall in the U.S. Senate race by less than 50,000 votes, but made a 10,000 vote improvement in a place like Pueblo county, which is 42% Hispanic. Rep. Mike Coffman defeated Andrew Romanoff in a district that became majority-Democratic after 2010 redistricting, learning Spanish, and taking part in Univision's first-ever Spanish-language debate in the state.
The Cuban-American Carmen Weese, who put 1,900 hours into Latino outreach was elated, but resigned to the national party high-fiving and leaving town. Then she got a call a week after the election.
“They called me and said we're here through 2016,” she said. “I knew then that all the efforts and the hours that I put in did not go to waste.”
Buoyed by victories in Colorado and in Florida, the RNC feels it has a blueprint for how to win support from Hispanic voters. Of the $10 million strategic initiative announced after the 2012 election for the midterms aimed at Hispanic, black, and Asian voters, the largest chunk was spent on Latino outreach, with more than 40 staffers spread across 10 states including the Southwest battlegrounds, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas.
Now the RNC says it is raising the strategic initiative budget “substantially,” with plans to double paid staff to more than 80 in those states.
But Republicans also readily admit that they have a long way to go with the Hispanic community nationally, where the brand is damaged after searing fights on immigration policy that have often cast them as out of step and sometimes as racist in certain wings of the party. Democrats say Latinos will respond to policies that make their lives better, not empty words and outreach, no matter the impressive level of resources deployed on the ground.
“They can dedicate all the money in the election to the Latino vote but how can they defend the offensive nature of the immigration debate, wanting to repeal Obamacare, and opposition to the earned income tax credit?” said Gabriela Domenzain, who ran Hispanic media for the Obama campaign in 2012.
“Republicans are their own worst enemies.”
This is the earliest Republicans have launched a national Latino outreach effort, according to the RNC. And they've put an emphasis on repeating what worked in 2014, even if that midterm electorate was very different than most presidential ones. That starts with candidates willing to do the outreach.
Gardner, for example, went to Fiestas Patrias, a raucous 92,000-person celebration for Mexican independence, where he was followed by Univision in September.
In Florida, Rick Scott who eked out a win over Charlie Crist in the governor's race, mounted the earliest and most expensive Spanish-language television ad campaign in Florida history, held a recurring Hispanic pastors' breakfast, and unveiled ads weeks before the election with popular former governor and presumed presidential candidate Jeb Bush telling voters to support Scott in Spanish.
“It's important that you have a candidate who's willing to make the Hispanic community a priority,” the RNC's Korn told BuzzFeed News.
A Florida Democrat close to the governor's race said this explanation for Scott's success is oversimplified. Scott, the Democrat said, split the Hispanic vote when he ran in 2010, but lost it by 20% in 2014. The Democrat gave another reason for his win.
“They bought everything, they walked into Spanish radio stations and said, 'We will buy everything that's available,'” the source said.
The numbers back up the contention. An election eve memo by Crist's pollsters found that at the end, Scott was pumping $1,200 a minute into TV ads.
Democrats acknowledge that the RNC Latino outreach machine is impressive, especially as it relates to what their party is doing, and say Democrats need to wake up before 2016.
“Democrats should give more resources, we have a whole lot more at risk if we don't engage the Latino community in 2016, we have to match them and then some,” said DNC Hispanic Caucus chair Iris Martinez, a Chicago state senator. “We are the crucial vote, the party needs to spend a whole lot more money in places where the Latino population is high and we have to do it early on.”
Domenzain said the entrance of Marco Rubio and expected candidacy of Jeb Bush, who is fluent in Spanish, raises the bar for all Hispanic outreach for both parties, especially for Democrats.
“Folks that come from Florida know the differences [within the Latino community],” she said. “They never had a Republican contender with such deep ties to the community, one that speaks the language. When your principal speaks the language, that's a different playing field.”
The DNC waved away concerns about RNC initiatives in an email to BuzzFeed News.
“Almost every Republican running to be the leader of their party supported an effort to shut down part of the government, because they wanted to stop a policy that would keep immigrant families together,” said DNC spokesperson Holly Shulman, referring to the fierce opposition to Obama's executive actions from Republicans that would shield more than 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and is currently undergoing legal challenge.
“The fact is no amount of new hiring or new programs will be able to make up for having the wrong policies on issue after issue.”
The DNC has had some hiring difficulties so far: the party has not hired someone to oversee its Hispanic media efforts nationally.
Andres Ramirez, a 20-year veteran Democratic strategist in Nevada said for all the criticism of the DNC, they identified in 2003 that the Latino community wasn't monolithic — that Nevada has a higher immigrant population, for example, and in Colorado and New Mexico you're dealing with third and fourth-generation Hispanics. The GOP, he said, is just playing catch up.
Republicans acknowledge that their biggest challenge is convincing Latino voters that the party doesn't have animosity towards them.
The RNC told BuzzFeed News that the perception the Hispanic community has of Republicans may be negative, but when they go into their communities, and stay there, and share their message, things can change.
Korn said the biggest problem was that in the past Republicans weren't present.
“How can you change someone's mind if you aren't there?” Korn said. “The door has to be open, it doesn't mean we will always get their support but opening the door and having them listen is very important.”
Carmen Weese, the Colorado volunteer, said first of all, people don't really like you knocking on their door. The Republican Party kind of made things worse.
“The pushback was awesome,” she said. “They came out and argued with us, they were angry. They said, 'What are you doing here now, you're here now because of the election, right?'”
So what did she do?
“We listened, we acknowledged their concerns,” she said, which can have a positive effect in the long run. “When a person has a good experience, they will tell more people.”