It’s not often that a political candidate turns down support.
But three Texas state Senate candidates rejected endorsements, and money, from a prominent national Hispanic conservative group this week because it is at odds with former President Donald Trump on immigration.
Pete Flores, running in Texas Senate District 24, Mayes Middleton, a Senate District 11 candidate and Rep. Tan Parker, in Senate District 12, publicly rejected endorsements from the political arm of The LIBRE Initiative.
They took issue with LIBRE’s support for a pathway to citizenship for certain immigrants who lack legal or permanent legal status.
“I did not solicit the endorsement. I do not want the endorsement. I will not accept the endorsement. I reject it,” Flores said in a statement issued Monday.
“I have a long track record of fighting any effort to grant amnesty to those who entered America illegally. I oppose any effort to establish programs that create shortcuts or allow certain people to jump to the head of the line,” he said.
Two of the hopefuls have formal backing from Trump, and all three want to be identified with his brand of politics.
Flores’ campaign did not return a call or email from NBC News requesting comment.
Middleton and Parker issued similarly worded statements.
Jason Villalba, CEO of the conservative leaning Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, said the rejections show that “in today’s Republican Party, even a group as centrist and chamber of commerce-looking as LIBRE is no longer welcome, because if you are not dedicated and beholden to the new Trumpism that exists in the party, you are not welcome.”
In response, LIBRE and its partner, Americans for Prosperity Action, withdrew their endorsements. The organizations are funded by and are part of the Koch network. The groups were backing endorsements for those three and four others with $1 million total.
The Koch network, built by the Republican megadonor Koch family, has clashed with Trump in the past but also is pouring money into opposing President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party's agenda.
LIBRE Action defended its immigration position of backing security at the border while allowing certain immigrants to earn legal status and withdrew its endorsements.
“We are disappointed that some state candidates accepted a false premise and description of our immigration position and as a result declined our endorsement,” a statement provided by LIBRE and AFP Action said.
LIBRE President Daniel Garza was not available for an interview on the endorsements because of a full schedule, his staff said.
We are not pro-amnesty, LIBRE says
News of LIBRE’s endorsements was publicized last week by Texas Scorecard, an online publication started by Empower Texans, a conservative advocacy group that was aligned with the tea party.
The headline blared: “Pro-Amnesty Group Endorses Texas Republicans.” After the story’s publication, the candidates demanded LIBRE withdraw the endorsements.
LIBRE refutes the description of its position as pro-amnesty. It supports requiring young immigrants, often referred to as "Dreamers," to pass a background check, register with the government and to have jobs or be in school to be eligible to apply for legal status or legal permanent residency.
“The LIBRE Initiative Action is undoubtedly for the rule of law and legal immigration ... For years, we have been calling on lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, to provide security at our border while modernizing and streamlining our country’s immigration system so that immigrants who are contributing to our country can do so within the law,” LIBRE Action and AFP Action said in a statement.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are about 3 million immigrants now who entered the U.S. before they were 18. But the pool shrinks with conditions such as school enrollment, graduation and other requirements that have been included in various congressional immigration reform proposals debated over the years.
Ultimately, it estimates that under the Dream Act of 2021, about 1.7 million of the nearly 3 million would be eligible for legal permanent residence.
A GOP ally in engaging Latinos
All this comes as national Republicans have been at work in the state and other parts of the country trying to build on the increase in the number of Latinos who voted Republican in 2020, particularly in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, traditionally a Democratic stronghold.
LIBRE has been working more than a decade in Latino neighborhoods and communities going door-to-door to push its positions.
It attends Latino gatherings and health fairs, holds workshops on filling out citizenship applications — as some Democrats have done — gives out school supplies at back-to-school events and free turkeys, while collecting contact information on Latino voters to contact later with their message of smaller government and conservative ideals, activities which generally benefit Republicans. Often, its work is done in Spanish too and not just in Texas.
LIBRE Action has generally backed Republicans, but in 2020 endorsed Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, whose home recently was raided by the FBI.
Also, in 2018, LIBRE joined the Koch network issuing political mailers that thanked some Democrats for legislative work on behalf of Dreamers.
But even after the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which the gunman told authorities he targeted Latinos and cited anti-immigrant rhetoric similar to that of Trump and some Texas state leaders, campaign talk about border invasions, crises and amnesty are considered necessary for GOP campaigns.
It's all about the primary
The district where Flores is running is majority white and 21 percent Hispanic. Trump would have won the redrawn district by about 19.3 percentage points, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.
The other two districts also are majority white that Trump would have won. There is a 13 percent Hispanic population in District 12, and 22 percent in District 11.
By jettisoning the endorsements, the candidates can avoid being painted as “open borders” or “amnesty” candidates and curry favor with Trump voters in their primaries, Villalba said.
“The reason these individuals made these statements is they believed it was going to harm them in a Republican party primary,” Villalba, a former Republican turned Independent, said.
Even Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is facing challengers who question his conservatism, which he has partly responded to with his own immigration enforcement operation and other far-right policies.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Trump loyalist, has endorsed all three of the state Senate candidates.
Similar battles are going on throughout the country as Trump is throwing his influence behind loyalists. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is in a struggle with Trump over how "Trumpy" the Senate and the Republican Party become.
Luke Macias, a Republican political consultant, said taking an “amnesty” position by supporting some immigration legalization measures is a nonstarter for those who want to win votes in Texas’ Republican primaries. And that goes for more Hispanic voters too, he said.
“What is hard for so many people to admit is that what Trump said about the border and immigration still ended up resulting in him getting a larger share of Hispanics,” he said.
“If a national organization that holds an immigration position that is open to amnesty believes it can spend heavily on Republican politics in the state of Texas, they would be wrong. It hurt more than helped in any way,” he said.
Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles downplayed any national consequences of the rejected endorsements in Texas, because he thinks the candidates are responding to pressure from a few immigration restrictionists. The candidates are being “nearsighted,” he said, and “it’s just silly because LIBRE is conservative.”
What's ahead in 2022?
Some Latinos walked away from Trump when he launched his 2016 presidential bid by declaring that immigrants coming from Mexico were rapists, criminals and drug smugglers.
Some who had stayed with him despite those comments, abandoned ship after his 2016 Arizona immigration speech in which he doubled down on immigrants as criminals.
Even though Biden won the overall Latino vote in 2020, Republicans maintain Hispanic voters will continue to support GOP candidates who are tough on immigration.
Macias said 2022 will show if an anti-immigrant message is harmful for cultivating Latino voters in the state.
For LIBRE, the question is whether it will become like the Latinos who were part of George W. Bush’s team and administration and other Hispanic Republicans who oppose Trump. Will it end up on the outside looking in?
Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.