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The Great Brown Hope?

A Blog by MellCom CCO Peter Mellado

The Great Brown Hope?

Peter Mellado

There could be a viable Latino Presidential candidate in 2016. Don’t start planning the fiesta just yet. (As published on LatinLife.com in February, 2015)

If the political rumor mills are to be believed, a very high profile Latino will officially enter the 2016 Presidential race in the coming weeks. According to one of his aides, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio told his staff on January 23rd, “to proceed as if he’s running for President in 2016,” ABC News reported. Bloomberg Media followed-up 4 days later with news that, at a special meeting in Miami on January 24th, Senator Rubio “told about 30 core supporters that he would decide by the Spring about whether to run for President.”

He wouldn’t be the first Latino from a major party to seek our nation’s highest office. As recently as 2008, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination, but his campaign caved-in early under the Barrack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton cage-match that the primaries quickly became.

He wouldn’t even be his own party’s first Latino candidate. That distinction belongs to little known and long forgotten Ben Fernandez, a Mexican American businessman who futilely challenged presumptive GOP front runner Ronald Reagan in the 1980 primaries – though he did manage to secure a handful of delegates at the party convention that year.

Neither of those two largely symbolic historical footnotes ever really had much of a chance. A Marco Rubio presidential campaign, on the other hand, would be something else entirely.

First there’s the man himself, and he’s the total package. He’s photogenic, articulate, and charismatic. He’s an experienced lawmaker who’s authored serious legislation at both the state and federal levels. And he’s shown the political shrewdness and agility needed to get many of them passed.

He’s also remarkably clean for a politician who’s risen as quickly and as high as he has. Not a whiff of personal or professional scandal has surfaced as far as anyone can tell – though the intense scrutiny of the coming presidential vetting process will certainly expose at least a few chinks in the armor, as it always does.

As for his Latino bona fides, they are unimpeachable. He is the son of immigrants, a practicing Catholic, and he speaks impeccable Spanish. He’s from Florida, a state home to millions of Hispanics with roots that extend to every corner of Latin America – including and especially his parents’ native Cuba. And he and his beautiful Latina wife are raising four beautiful Latino children. He’s as brown as they come.

Add to all of that his proven ability to attract White voters, and we’ve got the ideal Latino candidate on paper. It should be a slam-dunk.

But in politics, it’s never that simple.

In a world where most Latinos vote for Democrats, Senator Rubio has committed the unforgivable sin of being a conservative Republican, an affliction quite common in – though not exclusive to – the Cuban American community. While their loyalty to the GOP was cemented decades ago by the party’s strong opposition to Fidel Castro and its support for the refugees who escaped the communist takeover of their homeland, many Cubans today would cite the party’s pro-business, limited government, and robust foreign policy positions as equal reasons for their continued devotion two generations later.

Party affiliation alone, however, would not necessarily doom Rubio’s chances to earn a substantial share of the Latino Vote. Republican Governor George W. Bush earned wide support from Latinos of both parties in Texas in the 1990s, and that street-cred helped him win more than enough of the national Latino vote when he ran for president 2000 and 2004. Rubio enjoys a similar reputation among Latinos of all backgrounds in Florida, and that could very well carry him in 2016.

His position on immigration reform, perhaps the hot button issue today and a litmus test for many Latino voters – especially those under 40 – has vacillated a bit during his time in the Senate. While he’s managed mostly to keep from offending his party base that holds a hard, even hostile line against anything that smells like comprehensive immigration reform, he has shown a willingness to lead on the issue and work with Democrats to find a grand solution.

Rubio waded into the debate in 2013 when he proposed his own version of the comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate. His compromise came surprisingly close to many of the policies championed by President Obama and the Democrats, including the controversial “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants already living in the country. His efforts spurred serious dialogue between leaders of both parties and a breakthrough actually looked possible for a few news cycles.

But as happens far too often in Washington, vested interests shut out of the negotiations stepped in to kill it. Democrats grew fearful of Republicans getting credit for passing bi-partisan legislation on an issue so critical to their base. Republicans became mortified at the thought of explaining to talk radio and Fox News audiences why they voted for ‘amnesty’ – as all non-deportation, non-border militarization policies have been so branded by the conservative base of their party. Publically both parties blamed each other for the breakdown, and the compromise efforts died a quick death. The Democrat-controlled Senate passed their version of the bill, the Republican controlled House let it die on the vine, and Senator Rubio was left holding the bag. Latinos on the other side of the issue, though, took notice.

So what, then, would be the Latino argument against a Marco Rubio candidacy for President? Unlike the African American vote, to which it is often compared, the Latino vote isn’t nearly as monolithic, nor is it as married to the Democratic Party. Though roughly 2/3 thirds of all Americans who identify as Latino do tend to vote Democrat, their positions on the economy and labor issues, on abortion, gay marriage and other social issues, and on defense and foreign policy, vary significantly along the same lines that divide all Americans: age, gender, geography, education, and class. National extraction is a factor, but not necessarily a major one. A wealthy Mexican American businessman in Texas is likely to have more in common politically with a Puerto Rican Engineer in Washington, D.C. than with working class Mexican Americans in San Antonio, for example.

But when moderate Latino Democrats, independent voters, and other left leaning interest groups consider defecting to support any Republican in a general election, even a fellow Latino, they will take a very serious look at the nature of the candidate’s association with the xenophobic, anti-immigrant, borderline-racist conservative extreme of his own party. On this front, Senator Rubio has some ‘Splaining to do.

Like local politicians the world over, Rubio leveraged favorable demographics – in this case the sizeable population of middle class, mostly moderate and largely Latino Republicans like him in his South Florida district – to win a seat in the state’s House of Representatives in 2000. He was reelected three times and served as Speaker before being termed out in 2009. But to win a U.S. Senate seat in Florida, a solid Red State that’s as conservative as it is humid, he needed a much broader coalition of voters. In a state that’s 68% White, but only 14% Hispanic and 13% African American, this has historically proven to be a demographic challenge for minority candidates from the more moderate, diverse, and urbane Miami area. But not an insurmountable one.

Instead of reaching out to Latino and other moderate Democrats and independents to form a coalition, Senator Rubio saw the writing on the wall and hitched his wagon to the upstart Tea Party movement, which emerged as a middle class, anti-tax, anti-Washington-establishment uprising a year earlier. Though still in its infancy when Rubio took the torch and championed their populist-libertarian message, the darker, more alarming nativist ideology that many associate with the Tea Party today had already begun to seep through the cracks of that that idealistic façade. Rubio embraced them anyway, earning endorsements from every major right-leaning media outlet and becoming a national conservative rock star almost over night.

In what was an otherwise dismal showing for Tea Party-backed candidates in the 2010 general elections, Marco Rubio’s Senate victory was heralded as vindication for the fledgling movement, proof that their insurgency had matured into a national electoral force that could challenge the Republican status quo and score major wins in November.

While Rubio himself may not be an outspoken defender of the anti-immigration reform, anti-diversity, anti-compromise positions championed by the Tea Party, he’s shown little desire to confront his hardline supporters on these issues, either. And the one time he appeared like he might, during his doomed immigration reform compromise effort, he retreated at the first sign of resistance from the conservative base and right wing media that anointed him.

Senator Rubio got the message, and his rhetoric and actions since no longer stray far from the party line. “I continue to believe our system needs to be reformed and I’ve learned in the last year that because of such an incredible distrust of the federal government no matter who’s in charge, the only way you’re going to be able to deal with this issue is by first securing the border and ensuring that illegal immigration is under control,” he told Breitbart, a conservative web site, as recently as August of 2014.

It’s difficult to construe this reversal as anything other than a complete sell-out to the hard-liners on the extreme right flank of his party. Even the most conservative Latino Democrats and independents will have difficulty looking past this, as will many moderate Latino Republicans I suspect. It now appears clear: If Marco Rubio wins the Republican nomination in 2016, his victory will rest on the mostly white shoulders of the people at the extreme of his party who most fervently and even belligerently oppose legislation that 66% of Latinos consider extremely important or very important. As long as a vote for Rubio can be interpreted as a vote for the Tea Party and their champions in right wing media, Latinos will think twice before throwing their weight behind him in a general election.

The Latino Vote has always been a bit of an oversimplification of a very complicated reality.  It’s essentially a gentlemen’s agreement between a racially, ethnically, generationally, and even economically and historically disparate people to congregate at the undeniable intersections of our unique American experiences in order to improve our access to the levers of power and give us a better shot at the American Dream. Marco Rubio’s candidacy threatens to shake the very foundations of this agreement because his ascendency to the top of the Republican mountain will not be the product of it in all likelihood. And if he goes all-in with the Tea Party cards he’s already holding, which seems likely, the first Latino general election candidate in history could very well lose the Latino vote decisively and still win the Presidency. Chew on the implications of that for a minute.

There are still plenty of stars that have to align before we get to that point, and plenty of time for Senator Rubio to reconcile these issues. But as his behind-the-scenes operations start to ramp-up and the power brokers fall in line behind him, it’s not too early to start asking yourself what you would do – especially if you’re a lifelong Democrat. Could you, in good conscious, openly campaign against the first viable Latino solely on the grounds of his Tea Party affiliation? What will you do when you’re alone in that precinct booth and you have a chance to elect the first Latino President in American history?