Ted Cruz is the first Hispanic to win in the Iowa caucus, but the strong third place finish by Marco Rubio may give the GOP more chance to capture Latino votes in the general election.
Cruz heads to New Hampshire having won the most votes in history cast for a GOP Iowa caucus winner and one of three Hispanics to ever compete in the Iowa primaries, the first in the country. Rubio, meanwhile, finished just a point behind Donald Trump with 23 percent of the GOP caucus votes. Cruz had 28 percent and Trump 24.
"I thought it was interesting that 51 percent of Iowa caucus voters voted for a Latino," said Danny Vargas, a political media consultant who is a contributor to NBC News and MSNBC.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was a Democratic contender in 2008, but took only 2 percent of the vote for a fourth place finish.
Cruz's achievement wasn't likely to get blaring recognition in the community, a good portion of which has voted Democrat in recent elections.
Cruz, whose father is from Cuba, restrained the Donald Trump threat that has generated anxiety among Latinos. But just as he has in his campaign, Cruz gave many indications in his victory speech that his Latino credentials are likely to have limited appeal in the community.
Standing directly behind Cruz onstage was Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who is reviled by many in the community for his comments about immigrant Latinos – such as saying they have calves the size of cantaloupes from hauling drugs – and for drafting bills to end deportation relief for immigrants here without legal status. King is a national co-chairman for Cruz’s campaign.
Cruz has given indications in his victory speech that his Latino credentials are likely to have limited appeal in the community.
During his speech, Cruz also repeated his immigration agenda as he basked in his win.
“If you want a president to stop amnesty, to secure the borders and to keep us safe, then support a candidate who has led the fight to stop amnesty, to secure the borders and to keep us safe,” Cruz said.
Although he got support of Iowa voters, a coalition of GOP Hispanics has publicly condemned Trump and Cruz, largely because of how they have discussed immigration. That coalition has included Latino evangelicals, who oppose his immigration proposals. An increase in white evangelicals has been credited with lifting Cruz to the lead in Iowa.
Immigration is not the only issue Latinos vote on when they go to the polls – health care and economy also are likely to be key . But the tone and words used to discuss the issue often are an indicator to Latinos about how much understanding or respect a candidate has for the community.
Enrique Peña, a Republican who caucused for the first time in Winterset, Iowa, Monday night, said he had made up his mind several weeks ago to support Marco Rubio, which he did.
An immigrant from Colombia who has lived in Iowa since 1980, Peña said Trump and Cruz were “pretty divisive.”
“The tone and the language they use, they would not be good candidates to represent America in a foreign policy situation,” said Peña, who first came to Iowa to attend school and later married an American citizen. He was one of thousands of Latino registered voters who responded to efforts by the League of United Latin American Citizens to caucus in Iowa.
Rubio’s record on immigration has opened him to attack from conservatives and liberals. Conservatives have criticized him for being part of the Gang of Eight in the Senate that hammered out a bipartisan immigration bill and liberals have pilloried him for abandoning the bill.
Vargas said should Trump or Cruz emerge as the Republicans' candidate, the party could kiss the Latino vote goodbye.
“The rhetoric used by both of them has been so incendiary, not just their position, that’s bad enough, but when you compound that with the rhetoric” it makes winning the Latino vote tough, Vargas said.
“I think Rubio is pragmatic enough and sensible enough to say we got to be able to come up with a solution … he’s demonstrated his willingness to craft solutions,” Vargas said. Even though he's gone back and forth on immigration, people can say he tried, Vargas said.
Also Rubio might be more attractive to Latino voters because "he has a personal story we all can relate to," Vargas said. "It's not just an immigrant story, but a story of working hard to overcome whatever situation you were born into. That sense of aspiration is more endemic to our community. We are a lot more hopeful than other communities in our country."
"I think Marco is probably going to win Nevada, but it could be a bellwether for whether the GOP can attract a material portion of the Hispanic vote with Marco, or someone else." _ Danny Vargas, media consultant.
But Vargas added that just because Rubio is Latino and can talk to the emotional back story of Latinos that reaching and engaging the community is a slam dunk for him.
"What will be telling is what happens in Nevada," he said referring to the Feb. 23 Nevada GOP caucus. "I think Marco is probably going to win Nevada, but it could be a bellwether for whether the GOP can attract a material portion of the Hispanic vote with Marco, or someone else."
According to experts, Republicans need 40 percent of the Latino vote to win the general election in November.
Latino Democrats said none of the top three finishers in Iowa were a viable alternative.
Dolores Huerta, a farmworker organizer now working with People for the American Way, said Cruz would be a “disastrous” president and accused him of having a “dangerously extreme” agenda. She said Rubio has followed in Trump and Cruz’s footsteps.
“In recent weeks, Rubio has taken a hard-right turn, painting all immigrants as possible terrorists," she said.
Cristobal Alex, executive director of Latino Victory Project which seeks to put Latinos in elected office, called the performances of Cruz and Rubio in the Iowa caucus "bittersweet." He said while "we want to celebrate that two Latinos have climbed to the top of the political ladder," "they've kicked the ladder down behind them so that our community can't climb up."
"What they should have done is reached back to lift up our community," he said. "Instead, they turned their back on us."