- Conservative groundwork may help Republicans hold Senate
- Rubio, Heck, McCain outperforming Trump among Hispanics
If Donald Trump loses in November, one main factor will be the way he alienated Hispanic voters. But many of those same Hispanic voters could still give Republicans a chance to hold on to the Senate.
That’s because Republicans have spent the past few years reaching out to Hispanic voters in swing states, an effort that may help them blunt Trump’s toxicity in congressional races. Senate races in Nevada, Florida and Arizona, where Republicans face their biggest test, have been targeted by the Libre Initiative, a group funded by the conservative Koch brothers that has eschewed Trump all along to focus on down-ballot races.
"Very early on, our organization saw that we could not be confident that Donald Trump valued the principles that our organization holds in our core," said Libre spokesman Wadi Gaitan, who quit his job as spokesman for the Florida Republican Party this year over Trump’s positions on immigration.
This outreach to Hispanics has taken on new importance in Republicans’ strategy for keeping the Senate majority, a hope that’s becoming more elusive as Trump continues to slide in the polls. The GOP is counting on getting faithful party members opposed to Trump, as well as independents, to still show up on Election Day and split the ticket by supporting Republicans running for Senate and the House.
In Nevada, for example, Libre long ago abandoned the presidential race to focus on the Senate match-up between Republican Representative Joe Heck and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.
Ticket-splitting Hispanics also appear to be helping Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona, Republican authors of a failed compromise immigration overhaul in 2013.
A recent poll by Latino Decisions for the NALEO Educational Fund found Rubio winning by 10 points among Hispanics in Florida and Trump losing by 40. The split was a bit less dramatic in Arizona, with McCain down 19 points and Trump down 52; in Nevada, with Heck down 30 points and Trump down 55; and in North Carolina with Senator Richard Burr down 15 points and Trump down 50. The Latino Decisions polling firm has also done work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
McCain recently unendorsed Trump, while Rubio has continued to stick by him -- but not actually appear with him at any events -- despite the Florida senator’s scorching criticism of the party’s nominee as a con man who shouldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes.
The lesser known Heck, meanwhile, has been a model for the Republican Party when it comes to Hispanic outreach, staffing his congressional offices with Spanish-speakers and spending significant time in Hispanic communities.
"We just don’t show up in those communities two months before election asking for a vote. We’re in those communities every day, every day, at their events, participating," Heck told reporters at his campaign headquarters in Henderson, Nevada, earlier this month.
The results have been encouraging for a party struggling to attract minority voters.
"We took 40 percent of the Latino vote in the 2014 congressional race," he said. "We were the highest Latino Republican vote-getter of anybody other than our governor, who is Latino. And that’s because we’ve built relationships and people know who Joe Heck is."
While Heck opposed the compromise immigration effort, he has had a very different position on the issue than Trump.
Heck has backed a version of a bill that would allow children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents to stay, although he has voted to defund the president’s executive orders blocking deportations -- a point pounded by Cortez Masto at their recent debate in Las Vegas.
Heck countered, "I have never talked about deportation," adding that he wants a path to legal status for immigrants in the U.S. illegally who haven’t committed other crimes.
Heck, like McCain, recently unendorsed Trump after watching the 2005 tape of Trump bragging about groping women and getting away with it.
Heck has faced a steady stream of high-profile Cortez Masto surrogates attacking him as a Trump supporter -- including President Barack Obama on Sunday.
Obama noted Cortez Masto would be the first Latina ever elected to the Senate -- her grandfather immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico -- and slammed Heck for sticking by Trump, leading the crowd in chants of "Heck, no!"
"On issue after issue, Catherine Cortez Masto is going to be on your side, working for you," Obama said. "Her opponent is going to have the Koch brothers on line one, and Donald Trump on line two."
Cortez Masto says she also has the backing of immigration advocates on the ground and ripped the Libre Initiative as an insincere effort by the Koch brothers.
"To me, it’s offensive. Their goal is to exploit this community and not help them and they need to be called out on it," she said.
Democrats are also hoping to capitalize on people who became citizens this year so they can register and vote against Trump.
"I’ve never seen anything like that before in this state. There are people paying attention and they are going to come out," she said.
Gaitan, the spokesman for Libre, said his group differs from Democratic efforts because it is on the ground throughout the year.
"They show up to register people to vote," Gaitan said of Democratic groups. "We do everything from English classes to drivers’ license classes and citizenship classes."
The freebies come with a dose of conservative ideology. "It’s a platform for us to talk to them. We can talk to them about how overreaching government regulations and high-reaching taxes are an impediment to opportunity," he said.
So when they knock on doors to attack Cortez Masto and support Joe Heck, "it’s not the first time you are hearing from us," he added.
The group has hit Cortez Masto, a former state attorney general, on suing Uber -- a service that employs many Hispanics -- and on school-choice accounts, among other issues.
"A candidate that stands against those kinds of policies should not be rewarded with the Hispanic vote," Gaitan said. "That’s the case we’re making."
Harry Grill, senior political field director for Unite Here, a union that includes the powerful Culinary Workers Union in Nevada, said groups aligned with Heck don’t have the same ability to reach voters as the union, which includes canvassing operations and buses to take workers to the polls.
"It’s a much more real conversation. A lot of our folks are housekeepers, are cooks. They’re actually speaking to real people, people like themselves. That’s a very powerful message," he said.
Even so, there certainly are some Hispanics who would, in a more traditional political year, be receptive to the Republican message -- skeptical of government or opposed to abortion.
Jesus Marmolejo, a Las Vegas Republican who works as a manager in the transportation industry, is the kind of Hispanic voter Heck needs.
He said he supports Heck, a brigadier general in the Army Reserves, because he is a veteran, and doesn’t like Cortez Masto because she supports funding for Planned Parenthood.
"I’m against abortion, so why should I vote for somebody that funds that organization?" he asked. But he’s not yet sure he’s going to vote for Trump.
His wife, Elvia, a Democrat, pronounced herself "very undecided."
There are warning signs for Heck too.
Jay Jara, owner of two Los Tacos restaurants in Las Vegas, said Trump has inspired Hispanics to vote, and Heck could get swept away in the undertow.
"They’re scared for, you know, our cousins, that they’re going to deport all of them," he said.
Grace Cortez, a Democrat who recently moved to Las Vegas with her family from Los Angeles, opposes Trump and finds his supporters "scary."
"They picked the wrong guy," she said.
But she doesn’t know enough about the Senate race yet.
"I just need to be more informed," she said.