Politics & Policy

Courting Hispanics in Virginia and New Jersey

Chris Christie on the campaign trail.
Cuccinelli and Christie offer GOP test cases for how to win Hispanic votes nationwide.

The Hispanic vote has become a sought-after prize in Tuesday’s races for governor. In Virginia, the race is close enough that Hispanics could decide the outcome, even though they make up only 6 percent of registered voters. In New Jersey, incumbent Chris Christie’s share of the Hispanic vote will determine whether he can assure national Republicans looking for a 2016 winner that he has proven Salsa Appeal. Hispanics make up about 9 percent of registered voters in the Garden State.

#ad#Republicans have taken clearly different approaches to wooing Hispanics in the two state campaigns. In Virginia, Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s slow fundraising precluded him from orchestrating the kind of heavy minority-outreach efforts that allowed the state’s current GOP governor, Bob McDonnell, to win dizzyingly diverse suburban Fairfax County outside Washington, D.C. Cuccinelli has also had to play defense over hardline comments he has made on immigration and in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. He has tried to broaden his appeal to Hispanics by talking up small-business job creation and his efforts as state attorney general to combat sex trafficking. Reliable polls on Virginia’s small Hispanic population are scarce, but a late-summer Emerson College poll showed Democrat Terry McAuliffe taking the Hispanic vote by 64 percent to 27 percent, a number still below Barack Obama’s 71 percent showing in 2012.

In New Jersey, Governor Christie is trying for a big win by harvesting votes among traditionally Democratic groups. He has won endorsements from 26 labor and building-trade groups, which have many Hispanic members. He has nominated Hispanics for numerous positions: Passaic County prosecutor, a judge on the state Supreme Court, and a member of Rutgers University’s board of governors. He has two full-time staffers courting the Hispanic vote and is running an ad that features Leo Cervantes, the owner of Chilangos Restaurant in Highlands, touting his leadership abilities.

Christie’s campaign chair, Bill Palatucci, says he hopes the election results demonstrate a new model for how Republicans can appeal to minority groups: “His message is that you can’t come to any community and ask for them to vote for you a month before the election,” he told me. “He has meaningful engagement with the community each and every year, and it goes beyond attending events.” 

Christie’s appeal to Hispanics is partly stylistic — his blunt talk goes over well with disillusioned urban voters. But Palatucci also told me that Hispanics appreciate Christie’s opposition to new taxes, his support for school vouchers, and his understanding of issues of faith. Last month, he surprised many of his supporters by backing a state version of the DREAM Act that would give children of illegal immigrants the right to pay in-state college tuition.

In 2009, Christie won 32 percent of the Hispanic vote. This year, his aim is even higher, and he just might hit his target. A mid-October poll from Monmouth University has him leading Democrat Barbara Buono by 50 percent to 44 percent among Hispanics. Should he score near that number, you can bet Republicans in other states will ask Christie and his campaign team for pointers.

The building blocks for a stronger GOP showing among Hispanics exist in several of those states. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry won 40 percent of Hispanics in his 2010 reelection, a showing that he credits to his relentless drive to expand job opportunities. His aides doubt that Democrat Wendy Davis, who is running to replace him next year, will be viewed as simpatico by socially conservative Hispanics. She is best known for leading a filibuster this summer against a bill that banned abortion after 20 weeks; a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey found that 53 percent of Hispanic Catholics believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. In a Texas poll taken by the state GOP of Hispanic voters in the 2012 election, Hispanics described themselves as pro-life rather than pro-choice by a margin of 2 to 1.

In Pueblo, Colo., a September recall election that ousted a Hispanic Democratic state legislator for voting in favor of gun restrictions yielded a surprising find: A survey by the Democratic Public Policy Polling firm showed that Hispanics not only favored the recall but gave a higher approval rating to the National Rifle Association than whites did.

In New Mexico, Republican governor Susana Martinez has positive approval ratings from two-thirds of independents and nearly half of self-identified Democrats, a majority of whom are Hispanic. Martinez won 40 percent of Hispanics in her first race in 2010; next year she is aiming for a majority.

New Mexico representative Steve Pearce, a conservative white Republican, has won election five times in his congressional district, which is 47 percent Hispanic. “My staff and I do more than photo ops,” he told me last year. “We fully engage with the community, and we always level with them. They hate evasion and being talked down to. If you respect them, they will respect you.” 

Chris Christie says he finds it astonishing that Republicans have such a poor brand name in Hispanic communities, given that the GOP and Hispanics agree on many issues. A “sustained engagement” approach, he says, can correct flawed impressions. But an even more important issue is that in a recession or stagnant economy, it is minority groups that lose the most and struggle hardest. The Urban Institute reports that between 2007 and 2010, the loss of net wealth among white families was 11 percent, due largely to falling home prices. But among black families it was 31 percent. And among Hispanics it was a staggering 44 percent. 

“If we can provide solutions to the economic anxiety and insecurity that’s out there,” Christie says, “politics can change very quickly.”

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO

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