Jeb Bush, the potential GOP presidential candidate who once identified himself as Hispanic on a voter registration form, is marching into the Latino voter space this week.
The former Florida governor who has yet to declare his candidacy was to visit Puerto Rico Tuesday for an event at the Universidad Metropolitana de Cupey and for a town hall with the Republican Party of Puerto Rico.
Bush’s trip to the island also includes a fundraiser at the home of Zoraida Fonalledas, National Committeewoman for the Puerto Rico Republican Party and wife of one of the island’s wealthiest businessmen.
Then on Wednesday, he’s lined up to be the keynote speaker at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference’s annual convention, which was to also feature an appearance by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The organization boasts members of more than 40,000 evangelical congregations.
In doing the events, Bush gets to show off to some of the other GOP presidential candidates and hopefuls for 2016 the greater ease he has moving within Latino communities and how much sway his centrist Republican politics have in religious conservatives in the Hispanic community.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the conservative American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, said the visit to Puerto Rico is perhaps more important to Puerto Ricans in Florida than those on the island. The visit will generate more headlines in Spanish language media in Central Florida, where a significant Puerto Rican population lives, said Aguilar, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is advising several campaigns at this time.
“The Puerto Rican vote in central Florida, I would argue, is the decisive vote in Florida. There are 900,000 Puerto Ricans concentrated in Central Florida. They are deciding elections,” he said. “Obama won it by one point. Over 80 percent voted with Obama. Republicans need to penetrate there. Polling shows they are independent voters.”
After Puerto Rico, Bush will pivot to Houston, and meet with what will mostly be a Mexican American audience. That gives him a chance to show his insight to Latinos as more than a single, same-thinking voting bloc, Aguilar said.
Bush spokeswoman Emily Benavides said Puerto Rico has been a very important place for Bush since he spent about six months there working for his father, former President George H.W. Bush.
“He has a great connection to the island. He has great friends there,” she said.
Bush’s visit comes before any other candidate in the field, even before Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton who also has strong connections on the island.
Aguilar said Bush developed friendships with Republican and Democratic leaders on the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico, which Bush supports and which is likely to be an issue addressed during his visit. (Aguilar is a vocal supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory whose residents are U.S. citizens).
Democrats dismissed Bush’s credibility with Latinos.
“Jeb Bush is more interested in pandering to anti-immigrant forces in his party than listening to the Latino community,” said Democratic Party spokesman Pablo Manriquez.
“On issue after issue, Jeb Bush is wrong for the Latino community,” Manriquez said.
In Houston, Bush’s audience at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference will not only include Latino evangelicals in the U.S. but delegates from South and Central America and Spain, said NHCLC president Samuel Rodriguez Jr., who is born in the U.S. but whose parents are from Puerto Rico.
Rodriguez and other Hispanic evangelicals have led the push for immigration reform among all evangelicals, whose support has grown beyond Hispanic congregations. Rodriguez has been a supporter of the president's executive action that created programs to shield millions of immigrants here illegally from deportation and give them permission to work. Bush, however, recently told a conservative talk show host he would repeal those programs, although he has backed reform with a path to citizenship.
At the conference, the evangelical group will launch a campaign known as 21 Martyrs, to highlight the killings of Christians around the world. The name 21 Martyrs refers to the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by Islamic State in Libya, Rodriguez said.
“We want to engage the Latino community as a vociferous voice . . . and say this is unacceptable,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez has been helping with the planned June 1 start up of Christian TBN Salsa, a primarily English language network, as part of the Trinity Broadcasting Network. The aim is to reach 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Latinos, who are less likely to be religious.