Republicans should be in better shape than ever before to make an appeal to Latino voters. Two of their announced candidates for president, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, are sons of Latino immigrant parents and another soon-to-be-announced candidate, Jeb Bush, speaks fluent Spanish and has a Mexican-born wife.
The situation is not quite that simple, of course. The Republicans’ three amigos look about as phony to many Latinos as the trio of actors-pretending-to-be-Mexicans played by Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short in the 1986 movie, “Three Amigos!”
Start with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who officially launched his presidential campaign this week. He is full-blooded Cuban and, at one point, was his party’s great hope to capture the Latino vote. A handsome young man with an attractive family and deep roots in the immigrant community, Rubio was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010.
Though staunchly conservative on most issues -- opposing abortion, gay marriage, gun control and diplomatic relations with Cuba, among other things -- Rubio has strayed from his party’s general antipathy to immigration reform. In 2012, he tried to convince his Republican colleagues to compromise on the Dream Act, the legislation that would have given legal status to young undocumented immigrants who have grown up in the U.S., but he got slapped down. In 2013, he put a lot of energy into a new immigration law that would have set up a tough but passable path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. The conservative base branded the plan “amnesty” and the bill died in the GOP-controlled House.
Now, Rubio has retreated on the issue, saying the country will not accept changes in immigration law until the borders are sealed as tight as a drum. That puts him uncomfortably close to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the other GOP presidential candidate who qualifies as Latino.
Cruz’s father was an immigrant from Cuba. Cruz is an immigrant, too — sort of — given that he was born in Calgary, Canada. But he does not show much sympathy with undocumented immigrants. He opposes a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented people in the country and has supported measures to give police broader authority to ask about citizenship status. He has vigorously opposed President Obama’s executive order that blocked deportation of as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants.
Cruz may have a Latino surname, but he does not look like a winner among the Latino electorate.
Still, Republicans can attract plenty of Latino votes if they show some moderation on immigration issues. George W. Bush pushed for sensible immigration reform and that stance earned him credit among Latinos that helped boost him into the White House two times. His brother, Jeb Bush, could probably do the same. Given his Mexican wife, plus his three children that their grandfather, the first President Bush, famously referred to as “the little brown ones,” Jeb should be an attractive candidate to many Latinos.
Unlike Rubio, he has not waffled in his support for immigration reform. In February, he told the militant right-wingers at the Conservative Political Action conference that the idea of deporting 11 million undocumented people is a nonstarter. He said there should be a path to legal status for those who work, don’t break the law, learn English and “contribute to society.”
In response, the CPAC crowd booed him, which illustrates the problem for any Republican effort to reach out to Latino voters. Even if a candidate with appeal to Latinos makes it through the primaries and wins the nomination, will those Latinos want to give their votes to a party that displays such a hard heart when it comes to their undocumented compatriots?