How the GOP Built a Loyal Hispanic Base

For decades, Republicans used appointments and policies to win a reliable third of the Latino vote. 

What’s the deal with Hispanic Republicans, anyway? For anyone following Hispanic politics, it’s a perplexing question. The GOP is associated with the rollback of policies that are intended to benefit minorities and communities at the economic margins—the very policies that made the vast majority of Latinos Democrats. The current standard-bearer of the party launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, and is regularly, famously, deeply insulting. And yet roughly 30 percent of Hispanics voted for him. Indeed, Republican candidates for the presidency have generally been able to count on 25 to 35 percent of the Latino vote for most of the past century. How could the party build a base of support stable enough to withstand what seems like constant attack? 

The Hispanic Republican:
The Shaping of an
American Political Identity,
from Nixon to Trump
by Geraldo Cadava
Ecco, 448 pp.

It’s a question that Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history at Northwestern University who specializes in politics, policy, and American Latinos, gets from his students and attempts to answer in his most recent book, The Hispanic Republican. As he explains, there are many reasons why some Latinos have embraced the GOP. Among Cuban Americans, Republican support has deep roots in Cold War anticommunism. Some Mexican Americans in the Southwest identify strongly with Spanish roots going back centuries, and, as Cadava writes, for complex reasons, identification with Spain became one of the hallmarks of Hispanic Republican identity. Some Puerto Ricans, for their part, connected to the party in the years during which Republicans flirted with the possibility of statehood for the island. And many Hispanics, like other Americans, simply embraced the GOP for its generalized commitments to free enterprise and liberty. 

But Cadava makes the point that Hispanic loyalty to the party can’t be understood through the simple lens of conservatism, and the book is a deep dive into the specific history that created a relatively stable and resilient base of Hispanics among the Republican ranks. Cadava introduces us to individual leaders who fostered ties between the Republican Party and their communities and details the outreach efforts that Republicans ultimately adopted in order to keep—and hopefully grow—a Latino base. What results is a chronicle of the ways in which a segment of the community, inclined toward Republicanism for historical reasons, worked with the party to create both substantive connections and symbolic signals of respect and inclusion. These tactics helped ensure that roughly 30 percent of Latino voters remain stalwart Republicans even now. 

Cadava introduces us to the political evolution of various Hispanic subgroups, beginning with the Eisenhower years. The book gets off to a bit of a dizzying start (there are a lot of constituencies to get to know, and each of them is quite different), but it hits its stride as it takes the reader through time. After Eisenhower, one of Cadava’s first major subjects is Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who in some ways symbolizes the GOP’s tortured political relationship with Latino constituents. Like many future Republican candidates, Goldwater’s staunch anticommunism attracted some Hispanics, but his opposition to civil rights put others off. “The views Goldwater expressed about civil rights contributed to his extremist reputation and to the suspicion of many Hispanics that he just didn’t like them,” Cadava writes.

In a sense, then, it’s paradoxical that the Republican Party’s abandonment of the civil rights mantle—firmly seized in the 1960s by Democrats—helped spur its aggressive courting of Hispanics. But after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the party had to search for ways to make up the support it knew it would no longer receive from African Americans. To help do so, Republican operatives turned to leaders in the Mexican American and Cuban American communities who had a deep allegiance to values like religion, free enterprise, and anti-communism. These leaders, not willing to abandon civil rights altogether, hoped that they could move the GOP toward adopting greater respect for immigrants and greater educational opportunity. They became some of the party’s earliest Hispanic boosters.

The Nixon administration worked with these leaders to nurture a strong anti-communist base (remember those Cuban American Watergate burglars?) and devise new patronage-focused strategies to engage Latino leaders. Nixon concentrated on delivering federal programs to support minority entrepreneurs, including Hispanics. He also oversaw important milestones. Notably, Nixon became the first president to appoint a Latina as treasurer of the United States. His selection of Romana Acosta Bañuelos was understood at the time to be a strong signal of Nixon’s respect for the community and his inclusionary intent. She also provided an irresistible PR opportunity; he could point to the dollars people carried in their pockets, which for the first time had a Latina’s signature on them. It is worth noting that this strategy has been followed by nearly every president since Nixon to diminishing effect; of the past 11 U.S. treasurers, seven have been Latinas. 

Showing respect via political appointment helped provide a foothold for Hispanic loyalists who were eager to show their community that the party was responsive to their presence. And as time went on, these activists became more visible and influential in the GOP. The first Hispanic presidential candidate, Republican Benjamin Fernandez, made three runs for the presidency starting in the late 1970s, and became a significant party power broker. Hispanic Republicans proved important to electing candidates in the Southwest like Texas Senator John Tower, and in helping Ronald Reagan wrest Texas away from President Jimmy Carter, who had won the state in 1976. This had policy impacts. As Cadava chronicles, Reagan shifted toward a more ideological approach, including policy positions intended to demonstrate respect, rather than just appointments. For example, Reagan opposed a border wall and signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which ultimately legalized three million undocumented immigrants. 

If Reagan’s more balanced approach provided a more solidified, loyal Hispanic base, the years under both George H. W. and George W. Bush illustrated the ways in which demonstrating familiarity and respect can help such a base grow. Both Bushes appointed multiple Latinos to their cabinets as well as other key posts, and both took policy positions that showed a better understanding of the community and its concerns, if not alignment with the majority of its people. They were visibly pro-immigrant, and both made policy overtures on issues like education and trade, which were important to Hispanic Republican leaders. Both Bushes were important counterweights to the GOP’s growing restrictionist wing. The younger Bush, for example, resisted attempts to deny nonemergency health care, public schooling, and other services to undocumented immigrants while governor of Texas, and supported bilingual education. He was rewarded with high-water marks of Hispanic support for a Republican presidential candidate: 40 percent in 2000, and 44 percent in 2004.

Republican politicians at the presidential level are not positioning themselves to win the majority of Hispanic voters. They don’t have to. A Republican presidential candidate who can push that support north of a generally reliable 30 percent, as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did, can take the Electoral College. And the ones who don’t get close to that marker, like Bob Dole in the 1990s, will lose. This is what makes Cadava’s examination of how the loyal 30 percent was built, and what it took to sustain it, so interesting and important. 

But it also highlights a big weakness of the book, which is that it does so little to explore the decade between George W. Bush and Donald Trump. The departure of the Bush family from the GOP center stage left the party’s virulent anti-immigrant wing unchecked. Cadava spends too little time exploring what this meant for the party’s relationship with its loyal Latino voters and its ability to climb above roughly 30 percent. He entirely misses a chance to explore the career and candidacy of John McCain, for example, who had strong relationships and excellent Hispanic vote margins during his career as a senator. Republican presidential primary politics forced McCain to reverse the pro-immigrant positions of his Senate career, causing his Hispanic support to plummet. 

In the end, Cadava gives only modest insight into the most vexing question: why even 30 percent of Hispanics remain loyal to the party despite the insults of its current standard-bearer in 2016, and what they might do after a devastating four years. It’s an admittedly difficult topic, but Cadava’s answer, which amounts to a tentative suggestion that people are choosing their party over the man, is unsatisfying. The issue would benefit from a look at what can be gleaned from survey data, and an honest conversation with Hispanic functionaries within the party. The uncomfortable gyrations of prominent figures like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who have visibly struggled to adjust to this moment in their party, would also be worth some exploration. 

Still, the story of Hispanic Republicans has been misunderstood, and in its detailed history, Cadava’s book provides a useful introduction. The Hispanic community may not get the respect we deserve, especially from Republican leaders, but at least we have the satisfaction of knowing that, for most of your lives, you have carried dollars in your pockets with a Latina’s signature on them.

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Cecilia Muñoz

Cecilia Muñoz is currently a vice president at New America. She served for eight years in the Obama White House and 20 years at the National Council of La Raza.