GOP Finds a Way to Woo Latinos Without Angering the Tea Party

Republicans are boycotting a Univision primary debate on behalf of Marco Rubio

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Most Republican strategists concede their party is going to have to start appealing to Latino voters eventually. Recently, Terry Nelson, an aide on the Bush and McCain campaigns, pointed out, "The truth is, Obama needs fewer white voters in 2012 than he did in 2008." Texas Gov. Rick Perry could be the guy to win over Latino voters, but the Tea Party's stance on immigration makes it a tough needle to thread. Even in the northern, more moderate state of New Hampshire, Republican voters are angry over Perry's support for allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuitions, the Los Angeles Times reports. And they're not going to stop talking about it: Immigration, Politico's Maggie Haberman observes, is the one area where Mitt Romney can attack Perry from the right, even as it makes the party wince. ("It's a risk," a Romney backer tells her. "But he needs to do it.") So how can the 2012 candidates appeal to Latinos while being anti-immigration enough to satisfy the rest of their base? On Tuesday it looked like they finally found one small way: Defending the honor of Marco Rubio from the nation's largest Spanish-language broadcaster, Univision.

On Tuesday, Romney, Perry, Jon Huntsman, and Michele Bachmann all raced to defend Rubio, Florida's freshman senator. One by one, they all announced they're boycotting a debate hosted by Univision on January 29 at the University of Miami. Three Florida Republican lawmakers, all Latino, urged the ban, claiming that Univision tried to blackmail Rubio into giving an interview about immigration on its liberal show Al Punto, the Miami Herlald's Marc Caputo reports. Univision told Rubio they would hold or soften a story from July about Rubio's brother-in-law getting busted for drug trafficking 24 years ago, they say. Rubio doesn't claim the story is untrue, only that the channel tried to get something out of him. What adds to the urgency of the issue is that Rubio won 55 percent of the Latino vote in 2010 and is liked by Tea Partiers.

"Governor Perry will not consider participating in the January 29, 2012, Univision debate until your network addresses this ethical breach and takes action to correct it," Perry's communications director, Ray Sullivan, wrote to Univision. "This issue was brought to Michele's attention and she has a great deal of respect for Senator Rubio ... We reserve our right to participate in the Univision debate pending a positive resolution of this matter by Univision," Bachmann's spokesman told Caputo.
So far, Univision said it's not apologizing. Which is fine with Perry, his campaign says, since, "With NBC and Telemundo also hosting a debate the same weekend in January 2012, we will have ample opportunity to engage with Spanish-speaking Americans." One small snag for Romney, though: the immigration law he's attacking Perry on -- granting in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants -- was supported by Rubio when he was a state legislator.
Of course, there's another benefit to boycotting the Univision debate. The current crop of contenders won't have to answer some potentially tricky questions about immigration. When the network hosted a debate in 2008, the only candidate who signed up early was John McCain (this was pro-immigration reform McCain, not build-the-dang-fence McCain). The entire field, except Tom Tancredo who made immigration a sort of signature issue in his short-lived candidacy, eventually showed up. But it was not very comfortable. Here was Romney:

MODERATOR: Governor Romney, (inaudible) to be here and (inaudible). Do you think that you're taking a risk to come here to lose support from the more conservative base in your party?

ROMNEY: I don't think so at all. I think Americans across the country of all ethnicities recognize that we are a great, pluralistic society. That statue you have on the screen behind us, that light that shine out for the entire world said, This is an unusual land. This is a land that welcomes people of all backgrounds, of all ethnicities, of all nations; welcomes them here to this great land. (APPLAUSE)


People came here for opportunity. And our party is a party of opportunity. We stand for strength in our home. We stand for strength in our economy. We stand for strength in our military, so we defend our values, and so of course Republicans are going to come and speak to Hispanic Americans in the language they understand best, so we can get their votes and they can understand that we are the party of strength and the party of freedom.

You can almost imagine Tea Party voters squirming.

And, of course, there's a certain amount of short-sightedness in boycotting a debate intended for a Spanish-speaking audience as a way of bolstering credibility with that same audience. A point that Mike Huckabee himself made at the 2008 debate:


MODERATOR: Governor Huckabee, is there a risk standing up here (inaudible)?

HUCKABEE: Well, I think the great risk is not so much that we would come. The far greater risk is if we didn't. And it's not just that we would offend or perhaps insult the Hispanic audience of this country. I think it would insult our own party. It would insult every voter in this country.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.