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US Hispanics and the GOP, after Tampa

The Latino vote has become a key battleground in recent presidential elections. Everyone courts the now second largest ethnic group in the country, but these efforts have proven to be more difficult for the GOP, who risk alienating its anti-immigration conservative base. Will Mitt Romney be able to square the circle?

Arturo Lopez-Levy
7 September 2012

Latino Americans Romney supporters. Demotix/Javier Caceres. All rights reserved.

It is not that Romney did not want a Latino on his ticket; it is rather that his options were risky. The Latino electorate is sophisticated enough to not be led into the Republican camp only by a surname. Neither Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who never honored his pledge to present a bill that would provide a path to legalization for undocumented children, nor the governor of New Mexico Susana Martinez, a model of a successful conservative Latina with a more flexible approach to immigration, were tested candidates. Martinez is in her first term in New Mexico. Rubio is good at smiling but has several burning credit cards scandals and a family narrative that changes every minute. Romney's decision to choose Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate has two implications for the Republican Party's image among Latino voters: 1) After a Republican primary in which the candidates did everything imaginable to burn bridges with the Latino electorate, Romney, who even said the solution for more than twelve million undocumented immigrants is that they "deport themselves", decided not to repair relationships by choosing a Latino candidate for vice president. 2) Congressman Paul Ryan is one of the most consistent Republican legislators voting against the US embargo on Cuba since he arrived in the House of Representatives.

Without a Latino in the ticket, Romney tried to use the convention in Tampa, to build up its appeal to Hispanics. He failed miserably. His options were limited to three: 1) the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidate speeches, 2) prominent Latinos among the list of speakers, 3) the electoral platform.

Regarding the platform, the ideological balance of forces within the Republican Party prevented any mention of comprehensive immigration reform, or a balanced approach to a national healthcare plan (It is supported by 49% of the Latino community and despised by an absolute majority of republicans). As for the ticket speeches, Romney’s and Ryan’s views are not popular among voters in several battle states such as Colorado, Florida and New Mexico. Ryan even supported the Jim Sensenbrenner’s bill in the House penalizing anybody who protects or supports an undocumented immigrant, including his or her religious leader or pastor.

The only remaining option then was to offer some Latino orators a privileged place in Tampa. There were two major Hispanic orators: Susana Martinez and Marco Rubio. Governor Martinez who had questioned Romney’s “self-deportation” solution, said in Spanish that “En America todo es possible”, and managed a well balanced act by announcing that she and Romney were “very different” but shared a common vision for the future.

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. Wikimedia Commons/Steve Terrell. All rights reserved.

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. Wikimedia Commons/Steve Terrell. All rights reserved.

Marco Rubio’s prime time speech didn’t mention even once any specific issues relevant to American Hispanics such as the Dream Act, the education gap or the need for a comprehensive Immigration reform to bring millions of undocumented immigrants from the shadows of illegality, poverty and discrimination. The same words could have been said by a WASP conservative.

The Florida Senator was a disappointment for the Latino voters even by current Republican standards. Contrast Rubio’s performance with Condoleezza Rice’s speech. She said: “we need immigration laws that protect our borders, meet our economic needs and yet show that we are a compassionate nation of immigrants” and defined education, particularly in minorities’ neighborhoods as “the civil rights of our day”. Rubio aligned with Mr. Romney’s message but failed to express disagreement with the anti-immigration and racist trends within the Republican Party.

Ryan and the Cuban-American vote

Congressman Ryan's opposition on the US embargo against Cuba is relevant to Mr. Romney’s choices because Cuban Americans, particularly the oldest cohort, are the only segment of the Latino vote that supported the GOP in the last three decades. Given the importance of Florida for Romney’s road to the White House, the Governor vey likely believes that most of the Cuban-American electorate is already on his side, and Ryan’s posture would not change that.

If the embargo has survived, despite opposition by almost 70% of the US public, it is precisely because Cuba is not a priority for voters or the most powerful interests. In 2009, when Ryan asked: "If we are to have free trade with China, why not Cuba?" he only repeated positions expressed by all the post-Cold War Republican vice-presidential candidates. That was the position of Dick Cheney, who argued that "unilateral sanctions end up hurting our companies and opening ground to competitors from other nations." That was also the position of Jack Kemp, who said: "If we want to get rid of Castro, open up Cuba to fax, e-mail and the power of free enterprise." 

But Romney’s selection of Ryan has more impact on the pro-embargo faction than merely leaving Senator Rubio holding the flowers at the altar. Within the Cuban community in Florida, Ryan's presence on the presidential ticket will force embargo supporters to engage in political acrobatics that may affect the credibility of the republican vice presidential candidate. Ryan’s selection proves to American politicians that even within the Republican Party, the pro-embargo mafia doesn’t have any veto power. In addition to statements and votes to lift the restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba, Ryan was the earliest endorser of Jeff Flake, the Goldwater libertarian running for the Arizona Senate seat. Flake is the most prominent Republican opposing the embargo against Cuba in the US Congress for decades.

Jeff Flake in 2010. Shutterstock/Christopher Halloran. All rights reserved.

But supporters of the embargo don’t have a place to go. Ryan is already contributing, by default, to distributing among the Miami docile press the Palin-style fairy tale that he was "educated" at the last minute about Fidel Castro and the sanctions. Ryan, a smart politician, who brags about intellectual consistency, knows that the embargo is not a serious policy but he is already searching on Google for his new position. It is a sad spectacle. At least Ryan could emulate Dick Cheney’s sincerity. The 2000 vice-presidential candidate simply said that he disagrees with then-Governor Bush on the embargo issue, but that America has only one president at a time.

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