The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Koch brothers make push to court Latinos, alarming many Democrats

Paula Hernandez, 46, helps a friend use a Spanish copy of the Nevada Drivers Handbook. Hundreds of Latinos in Las Vegas attended a class to learn how to pass the state driver’s license exam. (John Gurzinski/for The Washington Post)

For Republicans, the road to warming the hearts and winning the votes of Latinos may begin at a Las Vegas flea market.

On a recent morning, inside the Eastern Indoor Swapmeet Las Vegas, a group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers helped 250 Latinos — some of them undocumented immigrants — pass the Nevada driver’s test.

The LIBRE Initiative, an expanding grass-roots organization now operating in nine states, organized the four-hour test prep session to teach the rules of the road in Spanish — no tome y maneje (no drinking and driving), el límite de velocidad es sesenta y cinco millas por hora (the speed limit is 65 miles per hour).

Paula Hernandez, 46, an undocumented restaurant supervisor from Mexico, was one of those sitting on folded chairs, listening. She has worked in the United States for 25 years and gave birth to three children here. She has never heard of the Koch brothers or LIBRE but said the free classes were a “great help,” particularly because nobody else is lending her a hand. “President Obama promised to do more for us, and it just didn’t happen,” she said.

To Republicans, that sounds like an opportunity — even though the Koch brothers and their conservative allies spend a great deal of their money supporting Republican candidates who oppose citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“Latino celebrities, unions and left-leaning community groups” for decades have done a far better job in courting the Hispanic vote and “engaging directly with the Latino community,” said Daniel Garza, executive director of LIBRE. Now, he said, his group aims to end what he calls the “deafening silence” from “libertarians and conservatives.”

In addition to driver’s license classes, LIBRE has started offering Latinos tax preparation help, wellness checkups, scholarships and food giveaways in Texas, Colorado, Florida and other states. It has bought ads touting the “free market,” smaller government and school choice, and its officials are a growing presence on Spanish-language news stations talking about the virtues of “self-reliance.”

By providing tax prep and driving classes, they are building goodwill in the Latino community and what they call a “platform for civic engagement.” LIBRE officials take pains to say they are advocating policies, not specific candidates.

Garza said his group is focused on explaining conservative views. For instance, they talk about how a higher minimum wage might not be in the best interest of Latinos, because they believe it will hurt businesses and that there are less expensive ways for young Latinos to get health insurance than Obama’s health plan. Garza also said LIBRE advocates are getting millions of undocumented workers “out of the shadows” and into the legal system.

Democrats sound alarm

The LIBRE effort, which backers plan to expand into more presidential battleground states over the next several months, has alarmed many Democrats.

“They are making friends and trying to convince you that the Democratic agenda is bad,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the research and polling firm Latino Decisions. He said the group hands out ideological material, collects names, e-mail addresses and phone numbers, and is “laying the foundation for Republican candidates to emphasize the same messages.”

Barreto says those behind LIBRE are “playing the long game” and don’t really have to win Republican votes, but rather raise doubts about Democrats to suppress support for them.

The Latino Victory Fund, which is backed by Democratic activists, including actress Eva Longoria, is so concerned about LIBRE that it is gathering Latino leaders in Washington next week to discuss how to counter the efforts, which they view as disingenuous.

Cristóbal Alex, president of the Victory Fund, said LIBRE offers handouts and “talks about immigration in a positive way” but “is really doing work on behalf of the Koch brothers, who put huge money behind candidates against immigration reform.” He said there is a long litany of conservative stances, including opposition to raising the minimum wage, that are unpopular with Latinos.

According to tax records, LIBRE has received $10 million since it began in 2011 from Freedom Partners, a nonprofit group backed by the Koch brothers and other conservative donors. Garza said the group has hundreds of donors.

At the drivers’ test prep class on Sunday, the crowd applauded a video touting the American Dream and showing the journey of Garza, the son of a migrant worker from Mexico who went on to work in the White House for President George W. Bush.

Rosana Romero, a popular anchor at the local Spanish-language station in Las Vegas, Mundo­Fox, which joined in sponsoring the Sunday event, greeted people as they arrived. Spanish-language TV stations have been reporting on the free classes and interviewing LIBRE officials. Everyone who came was asked to leave their names and contact information under a big blue sign that read, ”Limited government, Unlimited opportunities.”

In Nevada, where more than 1 in 4 people are Hispanic, undocumented residents can get a “driver’s authorization card” if they pass the regular driver’s test, a measure designed to make the roads safer because drivers know the laws and get insurance.

But many have been flunking the test, and Romero said that nobody was helping them until LIBRE stepped up. “What they are doing here is a good thing,” the TV anchor said.

Salvador Garnica, 44, an electrician who is a permanent resident originally from Mexico, has flunked the test four times. He said that after listening to an instructor explain in Spanish for four hours everything from the right of way at roundabouts to lane ­changes, he finally felt ready to pass. He was grateful for the help and the festive atmosphere at the flea market, where a dozen people who took the class won gift certificates in a raffle.

But Garnica also raised the challenge for LIBRE and other Republican efforts to win over Hispanics. While he appreciated the help, he wasn’t about to support Republicans: “They are for the rich,” he said.

Will efforts pay off?

Left-leaning groups have been signing up voters outside naturalization services and mobilizing turnout in Hispanic communities for years. David Damore, a University of Nevada associate professor and fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that what LIBRE is doing “pales in comparison to what unions do” and just shows that those on the right “think they can get them in their camp.”

But the question remains, Damore said, whether their effort will pay off. The immigration stance of Republican candidates will be key, he said: “Very few people listen to you if you say you want to deport you and your family.”

LIBRE’s strategy, he said, is not necessarily winning the Latino vote, “just not losing it 3 to 1,” as Republicans did in 2012.

After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee commissioned a report that urged the party to strike a more inclusive tone when engaging minorities and called on the party to embrace comprehensive immigration reform. The RNC has deployed about 40 Hispanic state directors, field staffers and volunteers to 10 states in 2014, including Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia — and that footprint is expected to grow.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is expected to announce a bid for president, is actively wooing Latino voters, as is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Bush’s wife, Columba, is from Mexico, a fact he mentions at nearly every stop. On Tuesday, Bush traveled to Puerto Rico to hold two public events, and on Wednesday, he addressed the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in Houston.

Even ahead of his official announcement, Bush has already hired a Spanish-speaking spokeswoman assigned to work with Univision, Telemundo and other Spanish-language media outlets, and he has posted his strategy on the Web site of his super PAC in both Spanish and English: "No vamos a ceder una pulgada de territorio – ni cuando se viene a problemas, grupos demográficos, o grupos de votantes." "We will not cede an inch of territory — no issues, no demographic groups, no voters."

Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, also speaks Spanish fluently and is one of the most familiar GOP faces on Spanish-language evening newscasts and Sunday-morning public affairs shows.

Donors and aides to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said they see Bush and Rubio and their familial ties to Hispanics as the biggest risks to their near-ironclad grip on the Latino vote.

Clinton’s political director, Amanda Renteria, is fluent in Spanish and is being aggressively wooed by Spanish-language media for interviews. Shortly after Clinton announced her campaign, Renteria headlined a conference call for Hispanic congressional aides and operatives. Clinton’s aides said she plans to place special emphasis on battleground states, including Nevada, with large Hispanic populations. Clinton will visit Nevada on Tuesday — Cinco de Mayo — a huge day of Mexican celebrations.

Jacqueline Sandoval, 22, a community college student in Las Vegas, said she will be listening to what all the candidates say and do. She was one of the U.S. citizens who attended the driver’s test prep class Sunday because it helped to hear it in Spanish. She’s not yet sure whom she will vote for in 2016 and says, so far, she thinks “each party has good ideas.”

O’Keefe reported from Miami Beach. Scott Clement, Matea Gold, Anne Gearan, Sean Sullivan and Katie Zezima in Washington contributed to this report.