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Latino voters have emerged as a crucial bloc, in next year’s election and beyond. Are GOP candidates like Donald Trump doing more harm than good when it comes to expanding the party's base? William Brangham reports from Washington state one what one conservative group, bankrolled by the billionaire Koch brothers, is doing to recruit voters.
It's Politics Monday, and we have two takes this week on an increasingly competitive presidential race.
As Republicans prepare to debate tomorrow night in Las Vegas, religion and immigration have emerged as running themes. But are GOP candidates, led by front-runner Donald Trump, doing more harm than good when it comes to expanding the party's base among a growing subset of Hispanic voters?
William Brangham traveled to Washington State recently to explore one effort, bankrolled by the billionaire Koch brothers, to recruit Hispanics into the GOP's tent.
It's election night, and Avina Gutierrez just made history. For the first time ever, voters in Yakima, Washington, elected a Hispanic candidate to their city council, not just one, in fact. Three Latinos won seats tonight, this in a city where 40 percent of residents are Hispanic.
The 35-year-old Democrat says tonight's victory is just another sign of the growing presence of Latinos in politics.
AVINA GUTIERREZ, Yakima City Council Member:
Tonight means that I will be able to provide an example for other Latinas to see that they do have a seat at that table.
Her election is part of a national trend. The Latino population of the U.S. has been steadily rising, while the white population has been declining.
By 2065, the U.S. is projected to be a majority-minority nation, with whites making up less than half the population. Politically, this trajectory has been great news for Democrats like Gutierrez. In national polls, Latinos lean Democratic more than 2-1 over Republicans. And, in 2012, Latinos overwhelmingly picked President Obama over Mitt Romney, whose remarks about Latinos needing to self-deport didn't sit well with many.
In its own political autopsy of that election, the Republican National Committee openly acknowledged that if the party couldn't figure out a better way to communicate with Latino voters, it would spell electoral doom for the GOP — quote — "It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy. If Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies."
And that's where Daniel Garza comes in. He's the head of the LIBRE Initiative. It's the largest conservative Hispanic political group in the country. And he's just been given $16 million from the conservative billionaire Koch brothers to try and convince Latinos that conservative ideals and Latino ideals are one and the same.
DANIEL GARZA, The LIBRE Initiative:
We are driving a conversation within the Latino community about the virtues of the free market, whether it's engaging them on policy issues or on cultural issues. So, for example, we believe strongly in self-reliance, in personal responsibility, in that hard work ethic, the American rugged individualism.
Garza served in George W. Bush's White House, and now regularly hosts forums with today's GOP candidates.
But his story begins much more humbly, here, in the agriculturally-rich Yakima Valley in Central Washington. The Hispanic population has exploded here in recent decades, as migrant families like Garza's, who once just came through to pick apples and cherries during the harvest, decided to stay and put down roots.
Garza showed us the hops fields — they're now out of season — where he and his family used to work.
Backbreaking work, working in the elements. Didn't pay hardly anything, and you were powerless. And I don't know of any mother who says, I can't wait for my child to grow up to be a farm worker. It just doesn't happen. But it's noble work.
They lived in nearby Toppenish, Washington, population 9,000, in this little house with no running water.
The idea, as farm workers, is that you rent the cheapest home you can.
It was, admittedly, a tough life. But Garza's dad was able to save up his money and eventually buy this small motel in town.
It was this step up the economic ladder where young Daniel began finding his political beliefs. He became a cop. He took a job working for the hard-charging Republican Congressman Doc Hastings. He was a huge fan of William F. Buckley on "Firing Line." It all made sense to him, and he became a card-carrying member of the Republican Party.
You know, I sort of was taken by Ronald Reagan's approach to governance and sort of embraced it.
Reagan famously said that Hispanics are conservatives; they just don't know it yet.
I mean, do you believe that?
I do. I do believe that. And I have always believed that they embrace the ideals of the free market.
And that's the message The LIBRE Initiative is pushing today, with slickly produced videos starring Garza using his rags-to-riches story as a symbol of conservative Latino empowerment.
My father never took welfare because he didn't want to depend on anyone or lose his dignity.
They're also spreading their message in more subtle ways. This is actually a driver's education class run by Garza's group. This one's in Las Vegas, but they do these in swing states all over the U.S. The idea is, you draw Latinos in for useful classes like these — they also teach English-language classes and help prepare tax returns.
And while they're there, those voters get a little dose of conservative politics on the side.
I would say, we use that opportunity as a platform for ourselves to drive our ideas, to talk to folks and connect with them. And then, you know, if it resonates with them, then they join our effort and they stay connected with us.
Garza's group collects contact information at these events for themselves, which it then shares with a group called i360, a massive voter database operation funded by the Koch brothers' network.
For LIBRE, the hope is that these events, with their focus on economic liberty and family values, will resonate with Latino voters.
When you're going out directly to them and tailoring your message to them, then you're earning their trust and their respect, because you're connecting with them. And they matter. And that's what voters need to feel, that my life is going to be better if I vote for that person or that person.
NINFA GUTIERREZ, KDNA:
I don't think that's going to — they're going to buy that.
Ninfa Gutierrez hosts a popular call-in radio show on KDNA, Yakima valley's Spanish-language public radio station. She says that, with the presidential election nearly a year off, right now, there's only one thing her listeners associate with conservatives or Republicans.
DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate:
They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.
The first call that we got on one of those programs said, because that clown that is saying all these things about the Spanish people.
Donald Trump, they're talking about.
Yes, Donald Trump, that he doesn't know what he's talking about. He doesn't know us, who we are, because he's saying that we're all, what, drug dealers, we're killers, we're this and that.
And the leading GOP front-runner isn't showing any signs of backing down from his tough stance on illegal immigration.
The wall works, believe me, properly done. Believe me.
While none of the Republican candidates support President Obama's executive actions allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, some argue massive deportation isn't feasible. Others argue that the GOP's harsh words about immigrants will be a boon to the Democrats.
JEB BUSH, Republican Presidential Candidate:
Even having this conversation sends a powerful symbol. They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now, when they hear this.
Indeed, super PACs supporting Democrats are already out with ads with Latino voters quoting the GOP candidates.
Garza, who spoke to an auditorium of seniors at his old high school, acknowledges that the GOP's current stance on immigration is driving Latinos away from his party.
And he's been vocal about the need for them to knock it off and to embrace comprehensive immigration reform. But, as he told these students at a school that is 86 percent Latino, he hopes voters focus on more than just the one issue of immigration.
Republicans are calling that we should now empower the individual, that we should focus on growing the private sector, much more than growing the government.
Afterwards, Garza got the rock star treatment, with students swarming around, jockeying for selfies and autographs. But did his message resonate?
We sat down with a smaller group of students from the school to find out.
If there was a candidate that stood for all the things you cared about, whatever those issues are — and they were — it seems like this is my ideal president, but they didn't agree with you on immigration reform, could that person still get your vote?
I wouldn't vote for him. My pride is where my family comes from, so I don't — he could be — I can agree with him with everything else, but if he doesn't benefit my people in the immigration reform, I would not vote for him.
Do you see it as a challenge to your mission, though, that many leaders of the GOP come out and say things that drive the Latino population into the arms of the Democrats?
So, our objective is to get Latinos behind free market ideas, the principles of limited government. That's our objective. Whatever happens politically, we can't control that. We can just help to drive a conservation within the Latino community.
Every 30 seconds, another Latino turns 18 in this country. Most of them are American citizens and eligible to vote. If these students are any reflection of the broader population, Daniel Garza has got his work cut out for him.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in Toppenish, Washington.
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