A year into Donald Trump’s presidency, Latino Republicans who support him remain hopeful, cautious and determined. Although more than half of Americans strongly disapprove of the President and the prestige of American global leadership has plummeted in the eyes of almost every country that has been polled, Latino Republicans are coping with this presidency with different approaches.
The response to Trump’s first year by Latino Republicans is characteristic of what may sometimes seem like a lonely job. Exit polls during the election indicate that President Trump's strongest support came from white voters without a college education, while Latinos voted in record low numbers for Trump at 29 percent. Those numbers, however, are disputed, and experts who specialize in Latino political behavior argue that Latino support for Trump was closer to 20 percent than 30 percent.
With anywhere from 20 percent to 30 percent of Latinos who voted for Trump, Latino Republicans charge into a political landscape in which both their identities as Latinos and Republicans are under attack from either side of the political spectrum. Reviled by many Latinos for their support of a president who called Mexican immigrants rapists, but also cringing whenever a fellow Republican makes an insensitive remark about Latinos, these Republicans have a long developed skill in political dexterity, which will once again be tested in the 2018 elections.
Esther Valdes is an elected official with the Coronado School District in California. She migrated to the United States from Mexico with her parents at the age of 4 and says she has identified as a Republican since she was 8 years old. She says her affiliation with the Republican party is rooted in her immigration story. “I am Christian, pro-life, and I believe Republican values mirror the values of my culture. We are aspirational and entrepreneurial people,” Valdes said.
For Valdes, Trump is the creation of a Republican Party that had long ignored the pain of working class people who have fallen victim to the status quo and changing global forces. “Donald Trump is groundbreaking, unprecedented, because he wants to promote the national interest,” she said.
Valdes brings up what she considers an important accomplishment in Trump's first year.
“As pro-life, the president has exceeded expectations,” pointing to Trump’s reinstatement of the Mexico City policy. The Mexico City policy is a government policy that began with President Ronald Reagan, which requires foreign non-governmental agencies to promise they will not “perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning” with non-U.S. funds as a condition for receiving U.S. global family planning assistance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Valdes sees Trump as a champion of Christian values, despite the recent allegations that the president had a sexual relationship with a porn actress and then paid her $130,000 to not speak about it. “I feel that he is not the most tactful person to explain what we care about as women,” said Valdes, but that “He is good-hearted overall.”
Like Valdes, longtime businessman and Republican supporter, Massey Villarreal of Texas says that ultimately he cannot vote for a party that supports abortion. “I’m not going to vote for any pro-abortion candidate,” he said.
A political pragmatist who believes that you cannot negotiate if you do not have a seat at the table, Villarreal sees the ascendance of Republican power in Texas as almost a certainty, despite the many hopes of Democrats that it will someday turn blue.
Should the GOP hold onto power in Texas, he said, Latinos need to be present to add their voice of reason.
Villarreal has become accustomed to managing expectations, but he also said he believes that the good economic outlook for Latinos will bring them around to Republican Party.
“Like it or not,” said Villarreal, “if you look at his accomplishments, the job market, the stock market, he is doing what he said he would do.” Recent polls by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, however, indicate that the Republican Party may not benefit from the economic satisfaction of the country and could be weighed down by the personal dislike of Trump.
Villarreal’s hope is that the GOP will weather the storm by integrating more Latinos into the Republican Party, pointing to a list of Latino Republicans already in positions of power, and who are able to influence policy. From Gov. Abbott’s wife, who is Latina, to the chief of staff for the Republican speaker of the House, infiltration must persist at all levels of government. “We have Latinos on the Board of Regents at Texas A&M and in Austin,” he said.
Ultimately, Villarreal sees hope in Latino participation and the community’s ability to change the GOP at the ballot box. “Having Latinos on both sides of the aisle is good because we won’t adopt the extremes of both parties.”
He points to his own facilitation of dialogue between Republicans and immigrant rights groups as an example of the bridge building Latino Republicans can do. “We got 34 Republicans to pledge their support for DACA,” Villarreal said, adding that Texas leaders like Sen. John Cornyn are on board, but need patience. “Give us 30 days, stay tuned,” he said. DACA refers to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has allowed hundreds of thousand of younger immigrants to remain in the U.S. and work.
Unlike Valdes and Villareal, however, some longtime Republicans are choosing to forge different pathways to influence the party.
Luis Alvarado, a consultant to the GOP in California, said he is trying to find a middle ground and create a group that will be a safe space for moderate Latino Republicans. But he says that his organization, dubbed the Latino Legislative Roundtable, won’t be about partisan ideologies. Alvarado said his group, which will be able to praise or criticize the political views or positions of candidates, but not tell people who to vote for, wants to move beyond partisan battles and make policy that truly benefits them whether that has to do with health, education or immigration.
“There has to be a recognition of the needs of Latinos,” Alvarado said. “On health care, they can talk to Kaiser and Kaiser may be influential but we can build on what Kaiser identified and be more specific to Latino communities.”
The backdrop to the group’s formation is the virtual black hole that Latino Republicans face in terms of influence under this current administration. The Hispanic GOP architecture built in George W. Bush’s presidency essentially has been dismantled and most Latino Republicans are on the outside looking in, even though Republicans have the majority in both chambers in Congress.
Like Villarreal, Alvarado feels the only voices heard on Latino issues are from the extremes and that his group can be a place for more moderate voices who can propose policies that provide solutions. He said issues they’d try to tackle would deal with providing economic opportunity, opportunity for success for the next generation and safety nets that are effective.
“My hope is it is something built for longevity,” he said, adding that he wants to get the parties to stop “weaponizing" Latinos for either party. He defined weaponized as when parties try to turn out just a certain segment of the Latino population in an election to have enough votes rather than making an overall effort to make laws that benefit Latinos to encourage voting loyalty.
NBC News senior writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.