To become first Hispanic president, Marco Rubio may have to bridge Hispanic divisions

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio  of Florida, center, poses for photos at an event at a restaurant on Friday in Las Vegas. Rubio drew interested audiences to campaign events over three days in the area.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida, center, poses for photos at an event at a restaurant on Friday in Las Vegas. Rubio drew interested audiences to campaign events over three days in the area.
Published Oct. 12, 2015

NORTH LAS VEGAS — His old working-class neighborhood in North Las Vegas, where Marco Rubio spent six impressionable years of his youth, looks more like the majority of Hispanic America than Rubio's hometown of West Miami. Restaurants sell tacos. Bars advertise soccer matches. Conversations sound distinctly Mexican.

The Florida senator says he feels right at home. He's speaking at the Catholic school he attended "for a month" before pleading with his parents to go back to public school with his friends. He has just driven past the community pool where he learned to swim.

"I learned a lot about the American dream in Nevada," Rubio says.

But when he switches to Spanish, he's unmistakably a Miami Cuban.

As Rubio campaigns to become the nation's first Hispanic president, the Republican must try to figure out how to win over the largest swing demographic in the country: Hispanics, who lean Democratic and in some cases aren't sure the conservative Rubio is really one of them just because his surname ends in a vowel.

Rubio, like most other politicians, doesn't want to talk about divisions among Hispanics of different descent — even if those contrasts are reflected in public opinion polls and political consultants devise unique approaches for each group. Candidates seek to unite, not divide.

"I've never asked people to relate to me because of how I pronounce my last name," he told reporters Saturday. "I ask them to relate because of my history."

That history as the son of immigrants forms a centerpiece of Rubio's presidential candidacy. It's aimed at connecting with people — not just immigrants, and certainly not just Hispanics — at an emotional level, the level that helps many, if not most, voters decide how to vote.

Rapt audiences at Rubio's campaign events over three days in Nevada suggest the message is working. Perhaps the most intent listeners to Rubio's narrative are the ones most unfamiliar with it: older, white, non-Hispanic conservatives enchanted by the 44-year-old whose parents worked as a bartender and a maid in far-from-upscale Vegas hotels.

"I haven't seen anybody else, and I really, really like him," 62-year-old Verna Taylor gushed after hearing Rubio speak Saturday morning at an Elk's Lodge in Boulder City, home of the Hoover Dam.

The more skeptical listeners are the immigrants and children and grandchildren of immigrants, the ones frustrated with political rhetoric that ties them, often unfairly, to "the illegals."

"What do I want to hear? What he's not going to say," lamented 73-year-old Renald Ramoz, who came Saturday to see Rubio at St. Christopher Catholic School, near where Rubio lived from 1979 to 1985.

"It's not just him," Ramoz continued. "Republicans and Democrats, they say we need to secure or seal the border. History shows it's impossible."

The differences between Cubans and non-Cubans in the United States aren't just over immigration. Hispanics routinely list their top issues as the economy, education and health care; on all those issues, Cubans tend to be more conservative.

But immigration underscores the split. The United States has given Cubans special immigration status since 1966. That's after Rubio's parents left the island, but the legacy of the Cuban Adjustment Act does not go unnoticed.

"His story resonated with me, but why is it his family can stay here and mine can't?" 26-year-old Erika Castro, who was brought into the United States from Mexico illegally by her parents when she was 3, said Thursday after listening to Rubio in the wealthy Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin. "When you're Cuban you get here and you're basically a citizen. I feel that's something he doesn't understand. He's privileged."

Outside a happy-hour campaign rally at a Cuban restaurant Friday night, immigration activists awaited Rubio with a papier-mâché replica of his face and torso. "We need a path to citizenship!" they yelled. "No huyas, Rubio." Don't run away.

That frustration, however, doesn't mean non-Cuban Hispanics aren't interested in Rubio — or that they will ultimately oppose him.

"The ability to speak Spanish, the fact that Marco was not born wealthy, the fact that his parents were immigrants — part of the American experience — he can speak directly to them," said Daniel Garza, executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, a nonprofit funded by the billionaire conservative Koch brothers, that held the Saturday afternoon school event in North Las Vegas.

"That's the biggest challenge for any candidate," added Garza, whose group has hosted several presidential contenders. "People are looking at the heart: How do you feel about fellow human beings?"

Style may overpower substance, but only to a point, countered Sergio García-Ríos, an assistant professor of government and Hispanic studies at Cornell University whose research is devoted to Hispanic identities and voter turnout in the United States. As Hispanic voters have gotten more involved in politics, they have also gotten more sophisticated, picking candidates based not just on their last name or shared history.

"Whether a Cuban-American will be able to win over (non-Cuban) Latinos, the answer is yes. Look at Bob Menendez," García-Ríos said, referring to the Democratic senator from New Jersey. "The problem with Marco Rubio is not that he's Cuban-American but that he's endorsed Republican positions that Latinos oppose."

Hispanics like the Affordable Care Act, worry about climate change and favor a higher minimum wage. Rubio wants to repeal and replace Obamacare, questions climate-change science and is against a mandated wage hike.

"You definitely have to appeal to a different community," said Nevada state Sen. Mo Denis, a Cuban-American who represents the most Hispanic district in Las Vegas. He also happens to be Rubio's first cousin — and a Democrat.

Denis, who attended and cheered for Rubio in two campaign rallies over the three days the senator was in Nevada, was the only Hispanic in the state assembly when he was first elected 12 years ago. Now there are eight, he said, and they represent Hispanics of mostly Mexican or Central American heritage.

"The biggest needs are education, jobs, economic development. I passed the Drivers Authorization Act here, to get the undocumented and others licenses to drive," Denis noted. "Those kinds of issues are the ones we all care about. The Hispanic community takes that stuff seriously, and they're going to look at where people stand on those issues."

Rubio, though, might perversely benefit from having the Republican presidential frontrunner ramp up the rhetoric about illegal immigration. When Donald Trump called some Mexican immigrants "rapists," "the whole community came together," said Teresa Ramírez, vice president of Hispanics in Politics, a nonpartisan group founded in Nevada more than 30 years ago.

"Everyone comes from an immigrant family," she said. "In the long run, we are all Latinos."