When more than 1,000 Latino officials a crop of up-and-coming representatives from a fast-growing demographic gathered in Phoenix last week, no one from the Trump administration was there to greet them.
It marked the first time a presidential administration skipped the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in at least 24 years. The absence was another fracture in the increasingly broken relationship between Latinos in the U.S. and the Republican Party.
“There is a great amount of anxiety about what is happening throughout the country facing the Latino community, and it’s not just immigration,” said Arturo Vargas, the group’s executive director. “Absence of the nation’s leadership at such a meeting is a real problem.”
Skipping the event during a week of tumult along the southern border crystalized how the GOP has shifted from the “compassionate” conservatism George W. Bush articulated to win the presidency twice, buoyed by the support of 44 percent of Latinos in 2004. Instead, wrenching photos and audio of the U.S. government separating migrant children from their parents symbolize the tense relationship between Latinos and the White House in the Trump era.
GOP strategists are bracing for the potential fallout the turmoil might have on November’s midterm elections, where control of the House and possibly the Senate is in play. Some Republicans are warning that President Donald Trump’s racially charged appeals to white voters, on display again at a recent rally he held in Minnesota, will doom the party’s relationship with minorities.
Peter Guzman, a Republican who is the president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Nevada, said the president is hurting the GOP’s outreach to Latinos in his state, which Trump lost in 2016 and where control of the Senate may hinge this fall. He said Trump damaged the GOP’s standing among Latinos by first showing ambivalence to the plight on the border and then stoking ethnic stereotypes.
“When you call them rapists and say they’re all criminals, it’s bad,” he said. “When he looks into the camera and marginalizes all Hispanics, it’s not good for the party.”
Others say the administration’s approach to the crisis at the border adds to the perception that the nation’s top-ranking Republican cares little about Latinos’ plight.
“Latinos don’t just feel misunderstanding and meanness from Republicans. It’s abject cruelty,” said former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who was the senior adviser to 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain. “For the Hispanic community, the Republican brand is gone forever. Kaput. They will never consider voting for a Republican.”
Schmidt ended his 30-year relationship with the GOP in the past week, blasting the “complete and total corruption of the Republican Party among its elected officials.” His outrage reflects frustration among some Republicans, particularly those aligned with Bush, about the party’s long-term ability to harness the growing segment of Latino voters.
Census data released recently showed non-Hispanic whites were the only demographic group whose population decreased from July 1, 2016, to the same date in 2017, declining .02 percent to 197.8 million. The Hispanic population, meanwhile, increased 2.1 percent to 58.9 million during that time period.
Even as American demographics shift, there are few incentives for Republican incumbents to abandon Trump or his hard-line approach on many cultural issues. Those who have criticized the president, such as GOP Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, were ousted by primary voters seeking loyalty to Trump. Other Trump critics in Congress, including Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, have decided not to seek re-election rather than face Trump’s most fervent supporters during a primary race.
And those enthusiastic Trump supporters remain by his side as they have through most of his controversial presidency.
“I’ve got absolute confidence in how this man handles anything,” 68-year-old Pat Shaler of North Scottsdale, Arizona, said in an interview.
For his part, the president — and some Republicans — see the immigration hard line as a winning play. Just hours after reversing himself and ending the family separations, Trump promoted hawkish immigration measures at the rally in northern Minnesota. Reminiscent of the 2016 campaign, Trump smiled upon a throng of 8,000 chanting, “Build the wall! Build the wall!”
The concentration of the non-white voters in cities has allowed Republicans to maximize their strength among white voters by shaping congressional district maps to help them hold majorities in 32 statehouses and the U.S. House. Exit polls in 2016 showed Trump garnered more than 6 out of 10 white votes and two-thirds of whites without college degrees.
“Trump exacerbated the cultural re-alignment of this country to a degree that we didn’t think possible,” said Tim Miller, an aide to 2016 GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who promoted a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally.
James Aldrete, a Democratic consultant in Texas, says “there is no joy” in watching Trump carry out family separations, which he called “a stupid failed tactic.” But Aldrete said it can only exacerbate Republicans’ problems among Latinos.
“Does it hit us in the gut? Hell yes,” Aldrete said.
Colorado, a perennial political battleground, demonstrates the challenge for the GOP. Republicans competing to win the gubernatorial nomination in Tuesday’s primary have united in attacking so-called sanctuary cities. As the border turmoil unfolded, the front-runner in the race, Walker Stapelton, aired a television ad declaring, “I stand with Trump” on immigration.
While such tactics may appeal to the GOP base in a primary, some Republicans said the moves are unhelpful in a state where the Hispanic population has grown almost 40 percent since 2000. Former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams said candidates should be addressing the economy and education __ issues that attract wide swaths of voters.
Messages such as Stapelton’s, Wadhams said, “make things very complicated for Republicans in Colorado.”