CLEVELAND—Rep. Sean Duffy and his wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, walked on stage at Quicken Loans Arena Monday night to applause and cheers, but when the latter mentioned that her father immigrated from Mexico, a few isolated “boos” emanated from the crowd.
The couple laughed tensely, then, ignoring the awkward outbursts, moved on to talk about how their bicultural backgrounds instilled in them an ethic of hard work, discipline, self-reliance, and opportunity—values shared by the Republican Party.
The exchange was emblematic of the challenge Latino Republicans feel here at the Republican National Convention: Their nominee, Donald Trump, has alienated much of their community, but they are trying to make the best of it.
Compared to the last few GOP nominating conventions, there has been little positive emphasis on Latinos, members of the community here said. Instead, the rhetoric has tracked closely to that of the presumptive nominee, whose condemnation of many immigrants as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists helped propel him to the top of the ticket by animating the party’s anti-Hispanic-immigration wing. It has, however, left him with support in the teens from the Latino community, according to recent polling.
As Trump and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus this week announced an upcoming Hispanic engagement tour, Latino Republicans and leaders who represent large Hispanic populations bemoaned Trump’s tone and the lack of top-flight Hispanic speakers and performers, urging Trump to start the outreach quickly before it is too late.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas carried the Hispanic vote during his 2014 reelection campaign. As he walked among reporters and delegates in the arena Monday, he acknowledged that Hispanic outreach has taken a backseat to unifying after a divisive primary. But he said he hopes Trump will engage him and others in how to reach out to the Latino community.
“It’s not all that complicated. It’s a matter of showing up and demonstrating your respect. You can have differences of opinion on matters of immigration and the like. But that’s an area he could do much better in, which I would be happy to help him with,” Cornyn said. “I would just hope as part of the general-election campaign, you can’t ignore that huge segment of the general electorate.”
Indeed, for the time being, Latino Republicans feel left out of the festivities. Although GOP primary runners-up Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both of Cuban descent, will speak, participants at a Tuesday panel on Latino outreach complained that the program has been otherwise light on Latinos. Notably absent are Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, said Ruth Guerra, the RNC’s former director of Hispanic media, who reportedly left because of her discomfort with Trump. (Martinez was always unlikely to attend the convention, given that she has criticized Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants and Trump in turn has said she “has got to do a better job” as governor.)
“Obviously, I would have liked to see a program similar to 2012, when we saw great Hispanic speakers lined up,” Guerra, who is of Mexican descent, said Tuesday, adding that she has not committed to voting for the candidate.
On Monday, a video was played from the convention stage that decried criminal undocumented immigrants and included a voice-over noting that victims of these criminals have to be “raped, robbed, murdered before they become a priority.” That is a far cry from 2000, when then-candidate George W. Bush stated in a video message to the convention that “Latinos enrich our country with faith in God, a strong ethic of work and community and responsibility,” and that he was “proud of the Latino blood that flows in the Bush family.”
The message has not gone unnoticed, said Daniel Garza, executive director of the LIBRE initiative, a group backed by the Koch brothers dedicated to conservative outreach in the Hispanic community.
“In 2000, you had [iconic Mexican singer] Vicente Fernandez singing ‘Cielito Lindo’ at the national convention. That tells me I matter, that my culture matters, that there’s a symbolism of inclusivity. Where is that?” Garza asked. “So it’s not only policy for me … but also the narrative. If your narrative includes me, then that tells me I’m going to be included in your policy outcomes too.”
Still, there have been some attempts at inclusivity. Kentucky state Sen. Ralph Alvarado was given a prime-time speaking slot Tuesday evening after meeting with Trump in Cincinnati in July. He said he thinks the slot is the result of an email he wrote to campaign officials earlier this year bemoaning the tone of the campaign.
“I said people are getting this image that Hispanics are just a bunch of refugees crawling across the border. We’re more than that. We’re hardworking, we’re industrious people. We’ve got to get that message out to let Republicans know what we are, and let Hispanics hear that we know what they are,” he said in an interview Monday in the convention hall. “I’m hoping that my message comes out.”
A group of current and former party officials and activists who once vowed never to support Trump announced in a letter Monday they had changed their minds and will support the nominee. Others, however, worry that it may be too late to make what they see as a much-needed sea change.
At a Tuesday panel organized by the National Organization of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Mexican Ambassador to the United States Carlos Sada Solana, who was in the audience, said he and his people are “insulted” by Trump’s rhetoric about building a wall and asked Republican Latino leaders to answer for it. In response, Republican former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño answered: “As a Republican, I am embarrassed by some of the statements that have been made, I’ll be honest.”
In an interview after the panel, Fortuño said the RNC writ large had made great strides in reaching out to Latinos, and candidates like Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado showed that Republicans can narrow the gap. But with little time to go before Election Day, and Trump showing few signs of an about face, he said, “they’ve made it very difficult.
“The RNC has done a superb job. I must admit, however, that the tone of the campaign starting a year ago is not conducive to what the RNC has been working on for three years. So there’s a dichotomy there,” Fortuño said. “What I’m hopeful about is that reason will prevail, that there’s more of us who don’t just boo at anything that isn’t from Wisconsin or wherever.”
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