Koch Brothers Nurture Rise of Hispanic Republicans
Lisa Meklas, a 30-year-old insurance underwriting assistant in Charlotte, is exactly the kind of person the Libre Initiative wants to get excited about the conservative movement. A first-generation American whose parents came from Cuba, Meklas is a registered Republican who says she’s against tax increases. When canvassers knocked on her door on March 12 and asked whom she planned to support in North Carolina’s March 15 primary, she was candid: “Anybody but Trump would be my actual answer.”
The Libre Initiative courts support among Latinos such as Meklas for reducing the size of government, rolling back Obamacare, and promoting school voucher programs. Since 2011, Libre—a nonprofit funded in part by groups affiliated with the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch—has opened offices in 10 states, including Arizona, Florida, and Texas. It had a budget of about $9 million in 2014, the most recent year for which records are available, and employs about 125 people who have recruited thousands of volunteers. “There are 15 million Latinos who make over $50,000 in America,” says executive director Daniel Garza. “If they’re already prone to vote for free-market or freedom-oriented issues or candidates, well, that’s good information to know. We want those people to get out and vote.”
In 2012, Garza says, about 40 percent of Latinos making more than $50,000 annually voted for Mitt Romney. This year, the group says, its volunteers will contact about 5 million eligible voters through knocking on doors and making phone calls. Details of those visits and calls are shared with i360, a voter database for conservative candidates that’s also funded by the Koch network. The goal is to raise turnout among Latinos sympathetic to conservative economic ideas. (As a nonprofit, Libre can’t explicitly advocate for the Republican Party.) Libre also hosts social events, including seminars on personal finance.
Libre’s mission has been complicated by Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republican front-runner. The candidate kicked off his campaign with a speech characterizing undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists, and he’s vowed to force Mexico to pay for a wall along the southern U.S. border. In early March a consortium of liberal groups announced an effort to raise $15 million, including $5 million from billionaire George Soros, to register 400,000 Latino voters this year in several states, including Colorado, Florida, and Nevada. “Our intention is to take the fear and anger in our community and turn it into votes,” says Cristóbal Alex, president of Latino Victory Project, a liberal group founded by actress Eva Longoria. Its super-PAC is backed by hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer.
Garza, the son of migrant farmworkers, acknowledges the frustration among Latinos with Trump, whose statements he describes as “cruel.” But he says Trump’s rise isn’t a reason for him to stop his work. “We know that this is going to be a long-term play,” Garza says. Libre volunteers say they also remain committed to spreading the word about free-market economics. “The principles are the same” as the ones she learned as a child in Peru, says Claudia Faura, who helped knock on doors in Charlotte. “We don’t want to be depending upon the government.”
—With assistance from Zachary Mider.