Op-Ed

GOP courtship of Latino vote off to shaky start

It’s unlikely any Republican nominee will win the presidency in 2016 without a sizable bloc of Latino voters behind him.

The minority of Latinos that supported Republicans in the past abandoned the party in 2012, and that goes a long way toward explaining why Mitt Romney is a private citizen today.

Yet one GOP contender thinks he has the problem figured out. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas told a session of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that he knows what quality resonates most with voters, and it is trust. They will back the candidate who they trust to come through on campaign promises.

I hope he was listening to himself because, from where I’m sitting, that is not exactly his strong suit with Latino voters. Trust has a lot to do with authenticity. It’s about whether a candidate speaks with deep conviction or delivers a sales pitch scripted by consultants.

Like his fellow GOP presidential hopeful, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Cruz cannot count on a certain rapport with Latino voters simply because he is Latino himself. Trust doesn’t work that way, not in life and not in politics. Hispanic voters are weary of being targeted as a desirable voter demographic to be flattered but not much more. They can spot the phony.

To many critics, Cruz has tried to court two mistresses: tea party conservatives on the one hand, and on the other Hispanic voters whom he views as ready for takeover by the GOP.

Cruz believes, with some justification, that Latinos are fundamentally conservative. Like many immigrant groups, they tend to honor faith, tradition and family. Latino communities stand out for their enterprising spirit, and the large number of small business owners among them are likely receptive to the GOP’s pro-business talking points.

But that doesn’t mean that candidates won’t have to answer the tough questions about where they stand on significant issues. And if anything was laid out firmly in Cruz’s appearance at the Latino Chamber, it was that immigration policy is a problem for him. He has to address it forthrightly, honestly and without wavering, almost as a litmus test before important stands on jobs and the economy can be taken seriously.

Chamber CEO Javier Palomarez pressed Cruz on the point. He noted that Cruz’s first campaign ads in English had mentioned his strong opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the executive actions President Obama took on immigration. Meanwhile, his first ad in Spanish left out these points, instead focusing on touching memories of his father’s immigration from Cuba. Why, Palomarez asked, was the message different?

The reason should be obvious. A lot of Latinos benefited from gaining health care through the ACA. And Obama’s executive action to give at least temporary legal status to some immigrants — an issue of high importance to many Latino families — was done in exasperation after Cruz’s wing of the GOP stymied a reform bill in Congress.

Cruz never did answer the question. Instead it was dodge and smile and tell another heartwarming story.

Latinos care deeply about many issues that they rank before immigration: education and jobs, for instance. But as Palomarez stressed, the Hispanic Chamber considers immigration reform an “economic imperative,” and he noted that Latino business owners found it to be a “unifying issue.”

Cruz should probably take that as a hint to back off from insisting that Democrats were using immigration as a “political cudgel” to scare Latino voters into voting as a monolithic Democratic bloc. It’s an issue that matters to them.

Like Rubio, Cruz says he is for immigration reform. But to him that’s just a matter of border security first and improving legal immigration by raising the number of visas allowed for more highly skilled immigrants. The real problem — a moral and political one — is what to do with the millions here illegally right now, but that seems to be something Cruz would like to shelve for another day.

Palomarez described Latino voters as pivotal and destined only to become more so.

“I believe that never again will an American president be elected without openly courting the Hispanic vote,” he said.

He might be right. And Cruz might be right that the key to winning Latino support is trust. If that’s the case, things don’t look good for Cruz or his fellow Republican contestants for the presidency in 2016.

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