The havoc Donald Trump is wreaking on the presidential race is just the beginning of the problems he is poised to cause Republicans in 2016. Already Trump and his anti-immigrant rhetoric is becoming a flashpoint in the down-the-ballot campaigns. The direction he is pulling his fellow Republicans could put in jeopardy the GOP’s majority in the Senate, as some of the cycle’s most competitive races are taking place in states with heavy Latino populations.
Of the five states that had the largest share of Hispanic voters in 2012 cycle, Florida, Colorado and Nevada are holding what are expected to be extremely contentious Senate races. And already, some of the candidates in those races have been expected to weigh in on Trump’s antics, which involve labeling Mexicans “rapists” and calling for the end of birth citizenship.
“That’s a question that comes up all the time,” Darryl Glenn, a Republican running for Senate in Colorado, told TPM. “What I’m hearing as I travel across the state is that he’s hitting the nerve. He’s addressing issues that we need to talk about.”
GOP Senate candidates are stuck between placating primary voters without completely isolating the Latino voters, who are a quickly growing share of each state’s electorate.
“Immigration does come up, and what we do as a party is we talk about what we recognize: that we recognize that we have a broken immigration system,” said Wadi Gaitan, communications director of the Florida GOP.
That Trump has earned the scorn of Hispanic voters is clear: Two-thirds of Hispanics in a recent Gallup poll viewed Trump unfavorably. Whether his reputation will stick to the Republican Party at large is still up for debate. A Univision survey, for instance, showed that only 14 percent of Hispanic voters believed Trump’s views represented the GOP’s.
Nevertheless, Democrats are pouncing.
“There has been huge negative response from a lot of people in Florida to what they’re seeing from Donald Trump right now,” said Joshua Karp, a spokesman for Rep. Patrick Murphy’s (D-FL) Senate campaign.
In Florida, where Trump owns many properties, the Hispanic vote went to Obama 60 percent to 39 percent in 2012 and is expected to grow 20 percent of the electorate by 2016 from the 17 percent it was then.
Murphy and Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) are vying for the Democratic nomination for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) Senate seat, which he is vacating for his presidential run. The Republican Senate primary is splintered among a number of candidates, including Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Lt. Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
While the Grayson-Murphy primary is expected to be a bloody one, both have jumped on the opportunity to criticize Trump and his rhetoric regarding immigrants.
Grayson, himself described as the Trump of the left for his brash style, has called Trump’s positions “ subliminal racism.”
“He’s thrown away the dog whistle,” Grayson said on MSNBC last week. “It used to be that you had to speak in metaphors in order to exhibit your racism. now you can just come out and be racist.”
“What happened to you this week is exactly what’s wrong with politics today,” Murphy told Ramos. “That Donald Trump can do what he did, have this hateful, racist rhetoric, this demeanor, and get away with it, and get praised by certain people and then act seriously about running for the President of the United States of America is uncalled for. He owes you an apology and the entire community.”
On the GOP side, the candidates have been all over the map as to where they stand on Trump.
Lopez-Cantera has ducked questions about the billionaire, saying soon after the July announcement of his candidacy that he was “happy to talk about any policy matters” instead.
Rep. David Jolly (R-FL), another Senate candidate, has been willing to criticize Trump, saying last week, “We already has one president who divides us, I hope we don’t have another.” Jolly also said, “I don’t think that Donald Trump will be our nominee, so it’s not something that I’m concerned about.”
Meanwhile Todd Wilcox, a Florida businessman running for the GOP Senate nomination, has been more willing to embrace Trump.
“We need diversity of thought, and a diversity of tone and candor in the primary process, and he’s providing that,” Wilcox said in July. “And he’s a masterful entertainer. He’s getting traction because he’s talking about something that people want solved, and he’s doing it in a way that’s getting him a lot of attention.”
Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson, who is advising Lopez-Cantera, told The Hill the race will come down to the candidates’ own strengths, but still had some words of caution:
“The worst case scenario is that Trump is running a campaign that is only about Trump, and [GOP Senate candidates] are constantly under the gun and trying to answer the latest policy announcement he makes,” Wilson said.
The challenge to incumbent Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (D) is expected to be a competitive one, considering his contentious, come-from behind victory in 2010.
Hispanic voters in the the state favored Obama 75 percent to 23 percent in 2012, and by 2016 the Hispanic share of the electorate is expected to grow to 16 percent from 14 percent in 2012. Bennet, it should be noted, was one of the “Gang of Eight” senators pushing for bipartisan immigration reform that passed in the Senate in 2013 but stalled in the House.
“With Michael’s leadership with comprehensive immigration reform, it will be very clear who is standing up for the Latino community and that’s definitely not Trump,” said state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a Democrat who works on immigration issues in Colorado
The Republican primary is only just beginning to pick up steam, but Trump is already making a mark.
“You have people who really are supportive of his positions and how open he is about that and you have some people who are like, ‘Whoa, where is this guy coming from? Is he really going to be elected?’” Glenn told TPM. “But overall I think the general consensus is, they’re happy we’re talking about it.”
Glenn said Trump’s rhetoric was “just not my style,” but he has taken up conservative positions on immigration and said he’s “absolutely opposed to blanket amnesty” and “policies that encourage people to violate the rule of law.”
The state’s other GOP Senate candidate Greg Lopez, a former mayor and director of the Small Business Administration in Parker, Colo., has sought to create more sunlight between himself and Trump.
“With my network and reputation here in Colorado, and people understanding what I stand for, I know they’re not going to connect me to Trump,” Lopez told NBC News. “My network will be able to clearly articulate what I represent — which is not close to what Donald Trump represents.”
Also getting attention in Colorado is a billboard in Orchard Mesa near Grand Junction depicting Trump in a suit of armor dueling a dragon labeled as the “PC Muslim Marxist Media”
As soon as Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) declared his candidacy for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) seat, he was quickly touted as a GOP bridge builder to the Hispanic community, which is expected to grow to 19 percent of the electorate from 16 percent in 2012 and broke for Obama 70 percent to 25 percent that election cycle. Heck has been successful in winning over Latino voters in his previous congressional races.
So far, however, Heck has also been dragged into the Trump mud. At an appearance at the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce last week, Heck said ending birthright citizenship “needs to be part of the discussion,” even as he said, “I don’t talk about Donald.”
Former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, the leading Democratic candidate to replace Reid (who is retiring), is Latina, and has taken to Facebook to slam Trump while implicating other Republicans:
“We’ve all heard Donald Trump’s awful comments about Mexican immigrants – they’re so offensive that I won’t repeat them here. And as someone who would be the first Latina to ever serve in the U.S. Senate, I’m especially disgusted,” she wrote in July. “But some extremist Republicans are actually defending Trump’s outrageous remarks! It’s baffling, and it’s flat-out wrong. That kind of hateful speech has no place in our politics.”