Can the GOP capture the growing Hispanic vote? The ans appears yes?
‘Let’s Welcome the Browns Into the GOP’
Florida Rep. Maria Salazar explains how her party managed to gain Hispanic votes even during the Trump years—and how it can continue the trend.
By James Taranto, WSJ
June 24, 2022 5:28 pm ET
A funny thing happened to the Republican Party on its way to political oblivion. It started attracting more Hispanic voters. Yes, even during the Trump years.
After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, the future looked dire for the GOP. In March 2013 the Republican National Committee described the peril in a report that the media invariably characterized as an “autopsy.” Mr. Romney had received only 27% of the Hispanic vote, down from 44% for George W. Bush eight years earlier. The Hispanic share of the electorate was growing: from 8% in 2004 to 10% in 2012 and a projected 29% in 2050. “America is changing demographically,” the report warned, “and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal . . . the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction.”
The report faulted Mr. Romney on both rhetoric and policy: “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.” (The reference was to a primary debate in which Mr. Romney had declared that “self-deportation is the answer.” Nobody paid attention when he added that “we’re not going to round people up.”) The report asserted that Republicans “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
Donald Trump had similar ideas. Mr. Romney “had a crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal,” the future president told Newsmax in November 2012. “It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote.” The Democrats, he added, had no policy for dealing with illegal immigration, “but what they did have going for them is they weren’t mean-spirited about it.”
It’s an understatement to say that Mr. Trump’s approach in his campaign was different. Whether or not it was advantageous, it certainly wasn’t catastrophic for him or his new party. He not only won the 2016 election but improved slightly on Mr. Romney’s performance with Latinos, receiving 29% of their votes nationwide, according to exit polls. And even as he lost in 2020, Mr. Trump’s share of the Latino vote ticked up to 32%.
The more dramatic shifts were regional—especially in South Florida and South Texas—and down the ballot. In Miami-Dade, the Sunshine State’s largest county and more than two-thirds Hispanic, Mr. Trump’s share of the vote improved from 34% in 2016 to 46% in 2020, helping him widen his statewide victory margin from 1.2 percentage points to 3.3. Two Cuban-American Republican challengers beat incumbent House Democrats in Democratic-leaning swing districts. One of them, Rep. María Elvira Salazar, won even as Joe Biden carried her district with 51% of the vote.
The 2012 autopsy asserted that “if we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity.” Ms. Salazar makes the same point with gusto. “Let’s welcome the browns into the GOP, because the browns have the same values that are entrenched into the Republican Party,” she says in an interview at her South Miami home, which doubles as a district office. “The GOP has not really been able to understand that the browns are GOPs in another language.”
To be sure, Cuban-Americans have long tended to vote Republican, and “Hispanic” (or “brown,” as Ms. Salazar prefers) is a catchall term that covers anyone with heritage from nearly two dozen Spanish-speaking nations and territories. But when I start to make the latter point, Ms. Salazar cuts me off. “That’s fine, but don’t let them confuse you with that,” she says. “We all have the same language and the same culture. We are mostly conservative, hardworking, God-fearing, law-abiding, [in favor of] paying low taxes and small government. From Tierra del Fuego in Argentina to Mexico, those are general and overreaching values for the Hispanics. So you can put us all in the same pot.”
She may be on to something. On June 14, voters in South Texas sent Mexican-born Republican Mayra Flores to Congress in a special election to succeed Rep. Filemon Vela, a five-term Democrat who resigned in March to become a lobbyist. Ms. Flores’s district, which is nearly 85% Hispanic, had been heavily Democratic but trending Republican: Whereas Mr. Obama carried it in 2012 with 61% of the vote and Mrs. Clinton in 2016 with 59%, Joe Biden received only 51% in 2020.
Rep. Flores faces an uphill battle for re-election; she is running in a redrawn, more Democratic district against another incumbent, Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez. But after her victory in the special election, the University of Virginia Center for Politics changed its outlook for the race from “likely” to “leans” Democratic, and for Mr. Gonzalez’s old district, now more Republican, from leans to likely Republican. In the third South Texas district, moderate Democrat Henry Cuellar is seeking a 10th term; the UVA center rates that race as a toss-up.
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Redistricting made Ms. Salazar’s district slightly more Republican but still closely divided; the same is true of her GOP freshman neighbor, Rep. Carlos Gimenez. UVA reckons both seats as likely Republican, but Ms. Salazar chooses her words carefully when asked about Mr. Trump: “I think that Trump is a very unique, transformational president. Very different, but I believe in the American electoral system. He was elected. So I have no qualms, just like Biden was elected.” (Ms. Salazar and Mr. Gimenez voted against Mr. Trump’s 2021 impeachment but were among 35 House Republicans to support an independent commission on the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, a proposal that didn’t survive a Senate filibuster.)
Ms. Salazar has an immigration plan, which she introduced in February as the Dignidad (Dignity) Act. It provides for strengthening border enforcement but departs from the prevailing definition of “comprehensive” reform by declining to offer an immediate “path to citizenship” for aliens living in the U.S. illegally. Ronald Reagan “was the last guy who gave some path to citizenship,” she says, referring to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Nearly three million illegal aliens applied for permanent residency, and 90% were approved, making them eligible for citizenship. “You know how many people took up that opportunity?” Ms. Salazar asks. “Seventy percent did not.”
Most immigrants, she says, would be satisfied with the ability to live and work legally in the U.S. and to travel home and return freely. Instead of a green card, her bill would give them a “dignity visa” allowing them to do all that. For the privilege they would pay $1,000 a year for a decade and check in biennially with the Department of Homeland Security, and they’d be ineligible for welfare or entitlement benefits. After 10 years in the program, they could apply for permanent residency under the “redemption program.”
She says the Dignity Act “includes probably the most strenuous and the harshest” border-security measures of any immigration bill. “Because I’m a brown girl from the ’hood, I can tell my people: No, you’re not coming illegally anymore,” she says. “It’s over, and if you’re going to come in and you’re going to claim asylum, good. We’re going to put you at a processing center for up to 180 days, and we’re going to offer you—it’s going to be good insulation. You’re going to have breakfast, lunch and dinner. We’re going to give you mental health and healthcare. But you’re going to stay there until we figure out if you can come in or not. And if not, then you have to go back.”
At the moment there isn’t much appetite among Republicans for immigration reform. Ms. Salazar’s bill has only six co-sponsors (down from seven owing to the death of Alaska’s Rep. Don Young). In March she appeared on Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” where the host berated her for supporting military aid to Ukraine and demanded: “Why not treat our own border with the same seriousness?” It was a loaded question, but you can bet that a segment of Republican lawmakers and voters accept its faulty premises.
Ms. Salazar was born in Miami in 1961, the year after her parents fled communist Cuba. She spent 35 years as a Spanish-language television journalist, starting at a local station in 1983 and later moving to Telemundo and Mega TV. “I interviewed the two most important dictators of the 20th century in Latin America,” she says—Cuba’s Fidel Castro in 1995 and Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 2003. “I think I’ve been the only one.”
What were her impressions? “Well, Fidel is Satan, and you felt it,” she says. “You feel the energy, the darkness. You feel whatever you want to call it—aura, vibe, I don’t know, energy, chemistry. Whatever you want to call it, but you do feel it, that you’re in front of a very evil, dark force. And well, he’s shown it with his actions.”
She criticizes Pinochet’s actions too: “You cannot put thousands of people in a stadium and shoot at them.” But she says he conveyed no diabolical vibe and she believes “he was convinced that what he did was what he needed to do” to “rid Chile of the communist forces.”
Ms. Salazar entered politics in 2018, when she lost her first congressional race to Donna Shalala, Bill Clinton’s health secretary. In October 2020, during their rematch campaign, Ms. Salazar tweeted a five-second clip of the incumbent saying in an interview: “I’m a pragmatic socialist.” Ms. Shalala tweeted back: “I am a pragmatic capitalist, and it is ridiculous to claim otherwise. I simply misspoke during one recent interview and meant to say ‘pragmatic capitalist,’ which is how I have described myself time and time again.” It was a costly error in a district that includes Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
Ms. Salazar cites her own family’s experience with socialism as a driving force behind her decision to enter politics. “Look what happened in Cuba,” she says. “My parents—I remember when I was a little girl, they said, ‘You know, this politics business, that’s BS. That’s for people that are not honorable.’ Oh really? Look what happened to you. You gave the country away to the unhonorable people.”
In her view, the U.S. faces a comparable threat from what she calls “the neo-Marxists within the Democratic Party.” She hastens to add that she considers Mr. Biden not a neo-Marxist but someone who “is surrounded by advisers and nonelected officials who are giving him very bad advice.” Neo-Marxists “are what I call the useful fools, and Fidel used to use that phrase a lot,” Ms. Salazar says. “They really think that government is the answer, that government is god, that the American exceptionality is a lie.”
She continues: “We’ve failed as a civil society in understanding that media and academia have been penetrated by the neo-Marxists. They have been penetrating for the last 30 years.”
Ms. Salazar worked in the media for most of that time. Did she encounter neo-Marxists? “Not on Spanish television,” she says. “The personnel that work in Spanish television—maybe we all have backgrounds where we have points of reference.” By contrast, “these white liberals from the Northeast, that have never been to Honduras or Nicaragua or Cuba, don’t know or they don’t have a point of reference.”
If she’s right about that, it may help explain why Hispanic Americans haven’t followed the political script written for them by the media and the Democrats—and, in 2013, by the Republicans.
Mr. Taranto is the Journal’s editorial features editor.