Ohio Gov. John Kasich was talking up the contributions of Latinos at a campaign stop Thursday when he made an ill-considered comment highlighting the struggle that some Republicans have had in demonstrating their understanding of the Latino community.
At a golf club in Irvine, Kasich praised Latinos as "great, God-fearing, hardworking folks," but then appeared to conflate Latinos and hotel maids. "A lot of them do jobs that they're willing to do and, uh, that's why in the hotel you leave a little tip," Kasich told members of a conservative-leaning super PAC at Shady Canyon Golf Club.
The comment recalled past Republican missteps when candidates talked about Latinos, including Mitt Romney's quip that being Latino would help him in the polls. He ended up winning just 27% of the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential election.
Latino and Democratic leaders pounced on the comment Friday, with Pablo Manriquez, Hispanic media director for the Democratic National Committee, accusing Kasich of "stereotyping Latino voters." Others said the remark shows how out of touch Kasich is with the Latino electorate.
As the Times noted Friday in a report from a rapidly changing South Carolina city, Republicans face a difficult dilemma with Latino voters. To succeed in the GOP primary, candidates must appeal to the party's conservative base, which demands a hard line on immigration. But they also must appeal to Latinos, a fast-growing electorate that overwhelmingly supports a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
Non-Latino candidates face a challenge in communicating cultural fluency to Latinos, says Republican political consultant Luis Alvarado.
"We don't see them engaging the communities they are seeking to represent," Alvarado said.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who has described Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, "doesn't communicate with Latinos unless it's in English and it's offensive," Alvarado said.
On the other hand, Republican candidates such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, and Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican-born, have shown that they are fluent in both the Spanish language and Latino culture, Alvarado said. At his campaign announcement this summer, Bush shared the stage with the Chirino Sisters, a Miami trio, who sang a classic Cuban song.
Rubio and Bush may be the GOP's best chances for capturing Latino votes in a general election. But they have struggled with the immigration issue, with both supporting legal status -- but not full citizenship -- for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. That position is more moderate than what candidates like Trump are proposing, and it could turn off conservative voters in the primary as well as Latino voters in the general.
According to a report released Friday by the nonpartisan Chicago Council on Global Affairs, only 38% of Republicans support allowing immigrants in the country illegally to apply for citizenship.
In contrast, 84% of Latino registered voters said creating a path to citizenship should be the top priority of any immigration overhaul, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.