Liberal Hispanic groups have launched a campaign designed to turn Latino voters against the two Cuban American Republicans who have risen to the top tier of the GOP presidential field — assailing Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz as traitors to their own culture.
Radio and online ads, social media posts and public discussions with Hispanic leaders in swing states are accusing Cruz and Rubio, senators from Texas and Florida, respectively, of fighting against immigration reforms, a minimum wage increase and other changes that millions of Latinos support. Many of the ads equate the two candidates to GOP front-runner Donald Trump, whose sharp rhetoric on immigration has until now drawn most of the attention of Hispanic activists.
“It’s not comfortable for us to do this, to call out members of our own community who don’t reflect our community values, but we have no choice,” said Cristóbal Alex, president of the Democratic-backed Latino Victory Project.
At a gathering Monday in Nevada of Democratic Hispanic leaders, ahead of Tuesday’s GOP debate in Las Vegas, photos of Cruz and Rubio were plastered alongside Trump’s picture, as all three were criticized as being anti-Latino. A news release noted, “While Trump continues to grab headlines with his hateful anti-Latino, anti-immigrant language, the positions and records of the two Latino presidential candidates in the race are equally dangerous for Nevada communities.”
Dolores Huerta, an influential labor leader and civil rights activist, called Cruz and Rubio “sellouts” and “traitors” at the gathering and said the Hispanic candidates “are turning their backs on the Latino community.”
The shift in tactics to target Rubio and Cruz in addition to Trump reflects a concern among some Democrats that the prospect of a history-making Hispanic candidate atop the Republican ticket could draw many in that crucial voting bloc back to the GOP. Democratic strategists have long seen Rubio, a charismatic figure who showcases his family’s immigrant story, as one of the biggest potential threats to Hillary Clinton in the general election next year because of his ability to peel away Hispanic voters in key battleground states.
In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Latino vote, a drubbing that contributed to his loss and caused conservatives to pay more attention to the fast-growing Hispanic electorate. Latinos overwhelmingly lean Democratic, but many do not hold strong partisan views.
Also Monday, some conservative Hispanics began criticizing Cruz, who has pushed for new limits on immigration — including the repeal of the 14th Amendment guarantee that anyone born in the United States is granted citizenship. The Texas senator has risen to the top of some recent surveys in the crucial early-voting state of Iowa, where caucus-goers tend to be conservative and strongly oppose illegal immigration.
The criticism followed a meeting with Cruz in which participants came away feeling that he shared the view expressed by Romney in 2012 that illegal immigrants should “self-deport.”
“Very troubling,” said Alfonso Aguilar, head of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, who attended the meeting. “He’s saying that he doesn’t even support any type of legalization later on.” Aguilar described Cruz’s stance as “either self-deport or they will be forcefully removed.”
The Cruz and Rubio campaigns declined to comment on the new attacks from the left.
One conservative Hispanic activist said the attacks represent an acknowledgment by pro-Democratic activists that either Cruz or Rubio could alter the landscape on the Hispanic vote.
“They are a huge threat to the Latino left,” said Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, a group that aims to build conservative support among Hispanics. “Oh, man, you are going to see the aggressiveness ramp up because they are a genuine threat to increasing the percentage of the Latino vote if they win.”
Garza said Rubio “especially would have tremendous appeal” as he taps into the aspirational struggle of many Latinos and talks about his own rise as the son of a bartender and a maid.
Both candidates have attempted to woo Hispanic voters, reaching beyond Cuban American communities to reach Mexican Americans and others.
Rubio frequently showcases his fluent Spanish on TV and radio shows geared to Spanish-speakers, and Cruz has deployed his father, Rafael, an immigrant from Cuba, to reach out to conservative Hispanic voters.
But the Trump effect — rooted in the stiff opposition among core GOP voters to creating a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants — has made that courtship complicated.
Rubio has disavowed many aspects of a bipartisan immigration bill he helped author. Cruz, meanwhile, has accused Rubio of supporting “amnesty.”
The senators’ moves to the right have created an opening for the left-leaning Hispanic groups.
A new digital ad with subtitles in Spanish criticizes Cruz and Rubio for talking tough against immigration reform and picture both Republican senators alongside Trump. The ad, paid for by the Latino Victory Fund and the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge 21st Century, shows Cruz forcefully saying, “We should end birthright citizenship,” and Rubio saying, “Yes, people will have to be deported.”
Latino protesters have shown up at Trump rallies since he called Mexican illegal immigrants “rapists” and began talking about deporting the millions of Latinos who lack legal status.
But at the GOP debate Tuesday night, protesters also had Rubio and Cruz in their sights, as part of this effort to say that having a Latino name is not enough to get a Latino’s vote.
“People are very concerned that Cruz and Rubio are often thought of as candidates that will attract Hispanic voters when in fact their records are hostile to Latinos,” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group.
Sharry said Rubio is now seen as “a traitor” for switching positions on immigration and that “most Latinos see Cruz as Trump without the overt bigotry.”
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.