A handful of Republican Senate candidates are operating in an alternative universe, one where Donald Trump’s promises of a big, beautiful border wall and mass deportation never caught fire and instead 2016 was finally the year the Republican Party was watching its tone and making strategic moves to court Latino voters.
In Nevada, Arizona and Florida, Trump might be on the top of the GOP ticket, but Republican Senate candidates are still attempting to put the Republican 2012 election autopsy lessons of Hispanic outreach into practice.
Now the question is whether three GOP Senate candidates in Arizona, Florida and Nevada have what it takes to reach Latino voters in spite of the rhetoric from Donald Trump.
“The most valuable tactic is to actually have your campaign embedded in the Latino community, to actually have relationships with local leaders, to actually be recognized,” said Luis Alvarado, a GOP consultant who is advising a handful campaigns in California,
Alvarado points out Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had done just that. Arizona had nearly a million eligible Latino voters in 2014 and the number was only projected to grow. By October of 2015, McCain had his Latino outreach team, Unidos Con McCain, in place. He announced three prominent Hispanic leaders in the state–Lea Marquez-Peterson, Tommy Espinoza and Pastor Jose Gonzalez–would be co-chairs on the committee. And he hired local Telemundo reporter Ana Carolina Pereira to serve as his Hispanic outreach director. The team has been traveling throughout the state, organizing bilingual door knocking activities and setting up Spanish-speaking phone banking in the office.
But even McCain has recognized the efforts could fall short.
“If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life,” McCain was recorded as saying at an event via an audio tape obtained by Politico. “If you listen or watch Hispanic media in the state and in the country, you will see that it is all anti-Trump. The Hispanic community is roused and angry in a way that I’ve never seen in 30 years.”
Making matters even more complicated for McCain is the fact he’ll be fighting back a primary challenger until the end of August, raising the question of whether McCain may have to distance himself from his 2013 bipartisan immigration bill that gave millions of immigrants a path to citizenship and bring back the 2010-era TV ad of him at the border fence in order to defeat challenger Kelli Ward.
Jason Rose, a Republican strategist in Arizona who ran J.D. Hayworth’s primary challenge against McCain in 2010, said McCain has done all the right things in Washington to show Hispanic voters he has the right tone on immigration, but “he has the challenge of trying to camouflage his position with Republican primary voters right now.”
“John McCain knows the lessons of Eric Cantor better than anyone that a nobody can beat a someone,” Rose said.
In Nevada where the race is on to replace Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D), U.S. Rep Joe Heck (R) is pitted against former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D), who could be first Latina elected to the Senate. A year ago, the race looked like it could be a toss-up, according to Jon Ralston, a respected political reporter in the state. He told TPM that Heck looked to be a strong candidate (he even won 40 percent of the Latino vote in his 2014 race, according to his campaign’s estimate) who had effectively built relationships with the Latino community, while Cortez Masto’s abilities on the campaign stump were largely unproven.
“His fortunes are directly tied to what happens at the top of the ticket,” Ralston said, calling Trump a “serious problem for Heck.”
Heck has struggled when pressed on specific Trump policy position, like the elimination of birthright citizenship, that antagonize Latino voters. But a Spanish-language radio ad targeting Cortez Masto on abortion shows that his supporters (it was paid for by a pro-Heck super PAC) haven’t given up on the Hispanic vote yet.
“I think that ad is an indication that Republicans nationally and here understand that there’s a cohort in the Hispanic demographic that they can appeal to with social conservative [issues],” Ralston said.
In the Florida Senate race, the lines are blurrier as 11 Republican candidates scramble to define themselves in the context of Trump. A recent poll showed 73 percent of Latino voters there had an unfavorable view of Trump.
“[Trump] only weighs you down,” says Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson. “All these candidates, they are going to have to start sepearating themsevels out as independent candidates.”
WIlson has been advising the super PAC supporting Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. A fluent Spanish speaker born in Spain to a Cuban father, Lopez-Cantera seems to be trying to thread the needle most carefully. He has has been cautious not to embrace Trump’s policies while adopting Trump’s anti-Washington rhetoric. He released an ad about his grandparents exit from Cuba under the Castro regime.
Being a Washington outsider is being a perceived as an advantage in this cycle. But on the flip side, the candidates who have a record they can point to might have an easier time separating themselves from Trump.
“When you talk to Latinos, it’s very easy to point to why they dislike Republicans, but once you talk about accomplishments, the partisanship is moved aside, and then they respect you for those accomplishments,” Alvarado said. “If you’re a new candidate, are you going to be easily pulled by the Trump movement and hurt yourself in the long run?”