Some influential Republicans remain skeptical that the party must tap a presidential candidate with strong appeal to Latino voters or that Jeb Bush is that person, leaving them unwilling for now to embrace the former Florida governor.
While GOP candidate and businessman Donald Trump has made controversial comments about Mexican-Americans since he entered the 2016 race, Bush has repeatedly highlighted his connections to the Latino community and praised the influence of immigrants on American culture. He speaks Spanish frequently on the campaign trail, constantly discusses the importance of Republicans reaching beyond the party’s base of white voters and attends events that most of his 2016 rivals don’t, like a conference for Latino pastors in April. He is also a strong supporter of creating a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.
In a recent interview with ABC News, Bush said that he and his wife Columba “speak Spanish more than English” at home. He spoke Spanish in that interview, as he did at times in an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and in his formal announcement speech in Miami last month. Bush also blasted Trump in an interview this week with the Daily Caller, saying "His views are not reflective of the immigrant experience. He’s just wrong."
About 90% of Republicans are white, so Latino voters are unlikely to lift Bush to the GOP nomination. Instead, he is trying to convince white Republicans to nominate him in the primary in part on the theory that he can woo some Hispanic voters in the general election.
In private meetings with potential donors and supporters, Bush aides argue their candidate can win states like Colorado and Florida that Mitt Romney lost in 2012 in part because he will make gains among Latino voters.
But many key Republicans remain unconvinced. Some in the party believe that most Latino voters hold liberal-leaning views on most issues and will be difficult to win, even if the GOP nominee is moderate on immigration policy. Polls so far show Bush, like other Republican candidates, still far behind Hillary Clinton among Latino voters, who the former secretary of state has aggressively courted in the early stages of her campaign.
And other Republicans see a path to victory, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has laid out, through winning states in the Midwest like Iowa and Wisconsin. In these states, which have small Latino populations, Republicans could appeal to white voters who backed Obama in 2012 but may disapprove of him now and be unwilling to vote for Clinton since she supports most of Obama’s policies.
“Let’s see if he can sell it to the Spanish-speaking community first and if we see it in the polls. We have to do better in other communities. Bush gets that part. Let’s hope he’s actually selling it to the Hispanic community,” said Shawn Steel, a former California Republican Party chair who was a key fundraiser for George W. Bush but is undecided in this race.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, put it more bluntly in a recent National Review piece, arguing Bush's "economic policies turn Hispanics off and relying on Hispanics alone won’t get him the electoral votes he needs.”
Some Republicans say that in emphasizing his ability to connect with Latino voters, Bush may instead be unintentionally highlighting the strengths of one of his top rivals, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
The Cuban-American Rubio largely avoids talking about his ethnicity. But Rubio’s pollster, Whit Ayres, has been for months arguing the Republicans must win 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2016, sending an unsubtle message the GOP needs to pick Rubio if it wants to win the White House.
“Jeb Bush is certainly a candidate who identifies with Latino voters in a way that is atypical for someone with such a WASP background,” said Katie Packer Gage, who was Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012 and has urged the party to avoid anti-immigrant rhetoric.
She added, “That said, I still would suggest that Marco Rubio has an even stronger play to this community in the general because his life has been a shared experience with most Latino voters, immigrant parents, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, the pursuit of the American Dream.”
Matt Barreto and Gary Segura, co-founders of an opinion research firm called Latino Decisions, are also skeptical of Bush’s odds of winning Latino voters. Citing polling, they argue that Latinos support raising the federal minimum wage, increasing taxes on the wealthy and expanding Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. Bush opposes all of those ideas.
“Latino voters have proven more than willing to reject even actual Latinos as candidates when their policy positions are in contrast to the community preferences. Bush’s marriage and linguistic skills, while symbolically important, would founder if his issue positions are in contrast to the average Latino voter,” Barreto and Segura wrote in a recent memo.
Bush’s highlighting of his connections to the Latino community is unusual, in that conservatives are often wary of invoking race, gender or ethnicity. Like Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the other minority candidates running for the GOP nomination, rarely discuss their ethnic and racial backgrounds or suggest they would have greater appeal to minority voters.
Jindal often says he does not “believe in hyphenated-Americans.”
“The Republican Party is not monolithic and there is a debate going on. I’m always surprised by the voices of an Ann Coulter, a Laura Ingraham, a Mark Levin, who say “write off the Hispanic vote, we’re never going to get it, we don’t need it,” said Hector Barreto, who was a co-chair of Romney’s “Hispanic Leadership Team” in 2012. (Hector Baretto is not related to Matt Baretto of Latino Decisions.)
“Right after the speech, I heard people saying ‘this is the United States of America, this is a U.S. election, why does he [Bush] have to speak Spanish?” said Baretto, referring to Bush’s announcement speech.
Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, after watching a video released by Bush’s campaign that featured some of his Latino supporters, said on his radio show, “is there anyone in this crowd with an American accent?”
“All of the problems in the world, I’ve been saying, if we could just get somebody who speaks Spanish in office, it would be fixed,” Beck said, mocking Bush.
Bush is executing a strategy he has been long advocating for the Republican Party. The candidate himself, Mike Murphy, who is running the Right to Rise super PAC that is aiding Bush and Sally Bradshaw, Bush’s chief political adviser, have been scolding fellow Republicans for years to improve their outreach to Latinos.
In 2011, Bush helped start the Hispanic Leadership Network, a coalition of mainly Latino politicians that advocates conservative policy ideas. Bradshaw was a co-author of a 2013 Republican National Committee report that criticized how Republican candidates in 2012 had failed to appeal to women and minorities. She was also on the board of a group called Americans for a Conservative Direction that tried unsuccessfully to get Republicans behind the 2013 immigration bill backed by Rubio and President Obama that would have created a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Bush’s brother George W. Bush also attempted to get a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants passed through Congress and spoke some Spanish. He carried more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, compared to 27 percent for Romney in 2012.
Jeb Bush has argued that Republicans must now outdo his brother, as the number of Latino voters continues to grow.
“When we hear foreign languages in the streets of America, that is a validation of the Republican vision to create a place where people want to come and make their lives,” he wrote in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post in 2012 titled “How Republicans Can Win Hispanics Back.”
It was one of many columns Bush has written over the last decade urging the GOP to campaign more effectively to Latinos.
Bush's invocations of his connections to the Latino community at times resemble how Hillary Clinton talks about her gender or Obama his race. Both Democrats highlight those parts of their identity when it is politically advantageous, and Bush seems to be doing the same.
Bush’s son Jeb, Jr. dubbed the candidate a “Honorary Latino” earlier this year.
But in the Republican primary, Bush has little to gain by getting Latinos to back him. Exit polls in 2012 showed that in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, three of the first primaries in the GOP nomination process, fewer than three percent of voters were Latino.
The GOP primaries will have few Latino voters participating until the process reaches Florida, which is currently scheduled to vote after more than a dozen states will have already chosen candidates. If he is not successful in states before Florida, Bush will have little chance of winning the nomination.
And for the almost entirely-white GOP electorate in states before Florida, it’s not clear how much conservative voters care if the candidate speaks Spanish or can appeal to the Latino community.
“I'm more focused on where they stand on issues than perceived electability,” said Shane Vander Hart, an Iowa conservative activist who said he remains undecided on who he will back.
Jack Kingston, a former Georgia congressman, said he appreciated Bush’s effort to show his broader appeal, but said this is secondary to GOP primary voters.
“What he has to do is make sure he is well-established as a conservative governor with achievements,” said Kingston.
At the same time, for many in the party, watching Bush’s approach has been a relief.
“I was extremely happy looking at the [Miami] announcement event. Looking at the crowd, at least half of the audience was people of color, so I think that’s great,” said Glenn McCall, a South Carolina Republican who was also a co-author of the RNC report.
“The Republican objective, is not win the majority of the Hispanic vote," said Hector Barreto, the former Romney adviser. “The objective is to make the differential less than the last couple of cycles.”
“Him speaking Spanish, that is such an asset,” Barreto added.