MESA, AZ --By 2016, Latinos could be as much as 20 percent of the electorate in Arizona, according to the Latino advocacy group One Arizona. Recognizing the role Hispanics could play in his re-election, five-term senator John McCain has launched the “Unidos con McCain” coalition.
“I’ve always had very good support from the Hispanic community, and my relationship has been intense and very helpful to me and my work," McCain said in response to NBC News Latino's questions at a recent news conference. "And I will do everything I can to maintain that support, and it’s very important and vital to me, not just numbers-wise, but the wonderful relationships that I’ve had all these years.”
Among the recruits to "Unidos con McCain" is Lea Márquez-Peterson, a businesswoman who heads the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and co-chairs the “Unidos con McCain” coalition.
Márquez-Peterson said McCain has done a lot to help Arizona small business owners, many of whom are Latino, including making sure businesses operating along the border have access to banking services. He’s also working to address the staffing shortages at the U.S. ports of entry, which she said are crucial for trade between the U.S. and Mexico.
“He’s been very responsive and very engaged with the Latino business community, and I think he really understand the challenges we’ve gone through during this recent recession,” Márquez-Peterson said.
But Arizona political analyst Mike O’Neil said McCain faces “a great deal of skepticism” given many Latinos were turned off by McCain’s hardline stance on immigration during the 2010 election.
The detractors argue that McCain’s recent efforts to court Latino voters stands in stark contrast to his 2008 bid for president and how he ran his 2010 re-election bid.
In 2008, the year President Barack Obama was first elected, McCain shifted away from the 2006 and 2007 comprehensive immigration bills he helped craft. He adopted a “border security first” position and said he would not vote for his 2007 bill if it was to come up again.
After the loss, Hispanic business leaders found an angry McCain in a 2009 Republican Latino outreach meeting. When Latinos expressed unhappiness with Obama’s pace on immigration, McCain told them they had “made your choice,” according to a National Journal report that was picked up by other media.
In 2010, facing a difficult primary challenge from Tea Party-backed conservative, J.D. Hayworth, McCain moved far right on immigration and endorsed Arizona’s controversial immigration law known as SB 1070. The bill, parts of which were overturned by the Supreme Court, allows police to question immigration status of anyone arrested or detained if there is reasonable suspicion they are not in the U.S. legally.
For that election, McCain also released a television ad in which he called for the completion of the “danged fence” and blamed immigrants crossing the border illegally for “drug and human smuggling, home invasions [and] murders.”
The ad didn’t sit well with Latinos, especially those who remember that McCain used a different tone on immigration when he worked with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) to introduce a bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2005.
At the time, many Latinos were also upset that McCain withdrew his support from the DREAM Act and voted against it in 2010 after co-sponsoring it a few years back. The bill would’ve paved a path to citizenship for young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally or overstayed visas.
McCain ultimately won re-election in 2010. Three years later, he was one of the architects of the Senate’s Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill, which included provisions to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as well as enhanced border security. It was similar to another bill he pushed for in 2007.
For opponents, his recent positions on immigration are not enough.
“His record is absolutely spotty,” said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Democratic state senator. “Some people who have stayed with him over a long period of time are Latino veterans for obvious reasons. I’m a veteran and I understand the kind of loyalty he evokes, but I’m also an immigration activist and a Latino activist.”
“I take side with those who find that his record is too unpredictable,” Gutierrez added.
But McCain's Latino supporters say he has moved past those views and built a record of reaching out to Latinos, working on behalf of immigration reform and assisting Latinos economically.
McCain said he doesn't understand the mixed feelings some Hispanics might have for him and his immigration views.
"I was part of the Gang of Eight on immigration reform and the Hispanic community strongly supported that, so I don’t know why anyone would have any problem with that," McCain said.
O’Neil said McCain’s latest move to reach out to Latino voters is “clear evidence” that the senator doesn’t think he faces a serious primary challenge from conservative state Sen. Kelli Ward or three others in the primary race. Instead, he said McCain is positioning himself for the general election race against Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick.
“He’s taking her seriously,” O’Neil said.
A recent Rocky Mountain Poll, conducted by the independent research group Behavior Research Center of Arizona, shows McCain leads Kirkpatrick by 6 percentage points, 37 percent to 31 percent among statewide voters, while 32 percent remain undecided. Among Hispanic voters, 31 percent support McCain, 33 percent support Kirkpatrick and 36 percent haven’t committed to either candidate.
The survey of 700 adults across the state has a margin of error of 4.2 percent among the statewide adults and 6.7 percent among Republican voters.
Although many Latinos have been turned off by McCain’s previous hardline stances on immigration, he may still be able to redeem himself with the electorate, O’Neil said.
“If he adopts a softer, more accommodating tone, then some people will listen to that and be pleased by it,” O’Neil said.
Amid the harsh rhetoric of the 2016 GOP primary, McCain has warned that his party must resolve the immigration issue to stand a chance of winning future elections. He has also criticized GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, saying he has “fired up the crazies.”
But McCain said those views have not supplanted his support for securing the border.
“I still strongly believe in border enforcement, and I will continue to push for border enforcement. And if someone doesn’t believe in border enforcement, then I don’t seek their vote," he said.
Jaime Molera, a Phoenix political consultant and a McCain supporter, is among the Latinos who plan to vote for the Republican senator. He said he sees McCain as “somebody who has been very active in the Latino community for decades.”
“He is one of the first Republicans to understand the need to engage the Latino community more,” he said.
McCain supporters say the senator’s stance on immigration has been consistent.
“I’ve been around Arizona politics for a long time and I think you need to look at the substance of an individual, especially someone who’s been in Congress for as long as he has and who’s been a senator for as long as he has,” Molera said. “And when you look at his position on immigration, he’s been very consistent.”
But while some Latinos like McCain’s position on other issues, Democrats like Gutierrez think his back and forth on immigration makes it difficult to trust him on the issue.
"If a politician isn’t perceived as a strong supporter of immigration reform, then “it’s going to be very difficult to get the support of our community,” Gutierrez said.
Ward, McCain’s leading Republican primary challenger, says securing the border “should be our first priority, not amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.”
But this time around, O’Neil said it’s very unlikely that McCain will shift to the right on immigration, because he doesn’t think Ward “represents the same threat to [McCain] that J.D. Hayworth did six years ago.”
Meanwhile, Kirkpatrick has accused McCain of pandering to the “anti-immigrant wing” of his party whenever he’s up for re-election. But Kirkpatrick faces some issues of her own. Many Latinos still remember that she was a no show during the vote for the DREAM Act in 2010, though she now supports the bill.
Mario Diaz, a government relations strategist who’s worked with Democrats like former Congressman Ed Pastor, said he plans to vote for Kirkpatrick because she has been a “strong advocate” for Latinos in Arizona. But he added that McCain also has “a long history” of working with various communities in Arizona, including Latinos, and has “represented Arizona well.”
“I don’t think that in the past several terms he’s been a champion for Latinos, but certainly his national policies have helped Latinos,” Diaz said.