The Hispanic Republican
Hispanic Republicans do not vote as a monolithic bloc and their views often cut across traditional left-right boundaries.
by Geraldo Cadava (Ecco, 448 pp., $29.99)
Hispanic Republicans rattled our commentariat throughout the 2020 election cycle. In September, when a poll of 500 likely voters in heavily Hispanic Miami Dade County showed President-elect Biden leading Donald Trump 55 percent to 38 percent, Republicans were excited, a curious reaction from a party that was trailing. But the trend was encouraging. Trump lost the county to Hillary Clinton by 30 points in 2016. Four years later he was down by 17; in the end, he lost by just 7 points. Some 32 percent of Latinos ended up voting for Donald Trump in this election, more than the 28 percent he earned in 2016—or Mitt Romney’s 27 percent in 2012 or John McCain’s 31 percent in 2008. Trump-sympathetic conservatives saw the result as the harbinger of a working-class, multi-ethnic Republican future.
How had Donald Trump, a candidate whose political ascent to the presidency began with his now-infamous comments about Mexican rapists, galvanized a significant portion of the “Latino vote?” How did some one in three Hispanics end up voting for him?
Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history at Northwestern University, considers this question in his recent book, The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump, in which his primary goal is to shift our focus away from the unique characteristics of Trump’s candidacy in order to track the development of this constituency within the Republican Party in general. “Hispanic support for the Republican Party isn’t new,” he says; “and, seen in historical perspective, it’s not surprising.”
True, it didn’t always exist. Only 5 to 10 percent of Hispanics voted for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Richard Nixon raised that number to 15 percent in 1960, but Barry Goldwater failed to break out of single digits in 1964. Cadava argues that this low level of support, however, hid a nascent constituency. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Hispanic Republicans pushed the party to develop a national Hispanic outreach strategy. Along the way, they developed an allegiance to the Republicans.
Today, we tend to think of Hispanic Republicans as overwhelmingly Cuban-American; yet Cuban-Americans arrived in Florida in numbers only after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Cadava’s early chapters focus more on Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. Originally dismissed by the party but energized by Goldwater’s landslide loss in 1964, four Mexican-American men formed the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, the first national organized outreach body of its kind.
Conservatives might be tempted to see an organic link between Hispanics and the Republican Party because of Hispanic religiosity, an ethos of personal responsibility, or a trust in democratic capitalism informed by the failures of leftist regimes. This view is endorsed by many Hispanic Republicans quoted by Cadava—people like Manuel Ruiz, a Goldwater campaign organizer, who said, “The Hispanic-American of the Southwest, and the Mexican-American in particular, is by nature a Republican.” (Decades later, Ronald Reagan echoed the sentiment. “Latinos are already Republican,” he said. “They just don’t know it yet.”)
But Cadava cautions against such essentialism. He emphasizes that political identities reflect not so much innate inclinations as sustained connections built over time. Richard Nixon and his team, after getting only single-digit support from Latinos in 1968, reevaluated their approach and adopted a straightforward strategy of patronage politics. First, Nixon ordered the Census Bureau to count Hispanics as a distinct category of Americans. This change gave the administration the information it needed to develop a set-aside program, which reserved federal jobs for Hispanics according to their percentage of the population. Nixon also established various offices and committees specially designed to assist Hispanics, including the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People (CCOSSP).
These bodies increased the visibility of and support for Hispanics within the administration but showed that creating a cohesive Hispanic identity was no easy matter. Throughout his book, Cadava catalogues intra-Hispanic competition and even animus. In one memorable instance, the Mexican-American chairman of the CCOSSP fired two of the three Puerto Rican members of the committee’s advisory council and replaced them with other Mexican-Americans. In response, the National Association for Puerto Rican Civil Rights sent a “scathing telegram” that called the CCOSSP chairman a “‘racist of the worst kind’—against whom and on what grounds, it did not say.”
The frequent jostling for leadership reflected not just competitiveness but differing priorities. Mexican-Americans were the most sensitive to the importance of free enterprise, and they would later be among the most vocal supporters of comprehensive immigration reform. Puerto Rican Americans prioritized support for island statehood, which gained the backing of all Republican presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush. When Cuban-Americans entered the picture, they were motivated primarily by a hardline stance against Cuba’s communist regime in particular and leftist regimes in Latin America more generally.
With all their drawbacks, bodies like CCOSSP during the Nixon years gave the various Hispanic Republican constituencies a new level of visibility. During Nixon’s first term he also made concerted efforts to appoint Hispanics to government posts. Romana Acosta Bañuelos was one of them. An embodiment of the philosophy of hard work and personal responsibility, she began with a single tortilla factory and built one of the largest Mexican-food distributors in the Southwest. She then became chairwoman of Pan American National Bank in East Los Angeles. In 1971 she was confirmed by the Senate as U.S. Treasurer, the first of three Hispanic Republican women to hold the post. Overall, Nixon appointed eight times more Hispanics to government than Kennedy and Johnson combined.
Nixon’s Hispanic strategy—the committees, set-asides, and federal appointments—has drawn criticism. The conservative writer Linda Chavez called him the “father of quotas.” New Mexico’s Democratic lieutenant governor said that Nixon “thinks he can get the votes of Spanish-speaking Americans by putting a few mannequins in powerless show positions.” Yet in 1972, some 30 percent of Hispanics voted for Nixon, a testament to both his Hispanic strategy and the efforts of the early Hispanic Republican activists. The 1972 results set a new bar for Republican presidential hopefuls.
There were limits. Ben Fernandez, to whom Cadava devotes a whole chapter, illustrates some of them. He became the first Hispanic to run for president in either major party. Given the nickname “Boxcar Ben” because of his humble roots, Fernandez was an economist by training who had success in the private sector and embodied the upwardly mobile, aspirational politics that Hispanic Republicans promoted. He became chairman of the National Economic Development Association, then head of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. Encouraged by demographic trends and Nixon’s Hispanic strategy, Fernandez entered the Republican presidential primary in 1978.
His campaign’s idea was that Hispanics in multiple states could be persuaded to rally around a message of pan-ethnic solidarity. He acknowledged that forming a nationwide coalition of Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other assorted groups would be difficult, diplomatically observing that these disparate groups had “a tradition of not working together.”
Fernandez’s campaign began by focusing its limited resources and message of Hispanic unity on the Puerto Rican primary, going up against a more conventional campaign run by George H.W. Bush centered on Puerto Rican statehood. Bush carried the primary with 60 percent of the vote. Fernandez got just one percent. His campaign never recovered.
Fernandez’s failed campaign called into question the idea that Hispanic Republicans could see themselves as a pan-ethnic unit. Though many Hispanics worried about being underrepresented, Fernandez’s failure suggested that very few prioritized their ethnicity or even national origin: He fared scarcely better with his fellow Mexican-Americans than with other Hispanics.
At this point, a clear split emerged among Hispanic Republican strategists. Some emphasized differing messages for different Hispanic communities; others persisted in pushing a broad message of Hispanic commonality. Despite Fernandez’s loss, candidate Ronald Reagan was staking out a view of Hispanic Republicanism that was grounded in an idea of inherent ideological overlap between conservatism and Hispanic community life.
Reagan represented a clear break from both Nixon’s patronage politics and Fernandez’s representational politics. Instead, Reagan emphasized the alignment between his conservative policies and characteristics shared by Hispanics across the country. This message to Hispanics won Reagan around a third of the national Hispanic vote in 1980, a marked improvement on the 19 percent Gerald Ford had received four years earlier. More important, Reagan’s victory foreshadowed several important future trends and future tensions among Hispanic Republicans and between Hispanic Republicans and other factions of the Republican Party.
First, Cuban-Americans gave Reagan an overwhelming level of support. Eighty percent of them voted for him, compared to 30 percent of Mexican-Americans and 18 percent of Puerto Ricans. While the Hispanic Republican movement began in the Southwest, Cuban-Americans in the Southeast would continue to play a growing role in the future of Hispanic Republicanism.
Reagan’s consistent and fervid opposition to communist movements in the Western Hemisphere convinced Cuban-American leaders and voters alike that he genuinely understood their concerns. Yet Cadava paints them as more than single-issue voters: Like Mexican-American Republican leaders, they had come to adopt the Republican Party’s policies on most issues through their increased contact with the party.
Cuban-Americans’ influence also benefitted from their being geographically concentrated, highly politically active, and political refugees. It was no surprise that the first Latina elected to congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, came from the Cuban-American exile community. These characteristics would help them cement their influence in the Republican Party and allow them to spread the Republican message to other Hispanic constituencies in South Florida.
The second development of the Reagan years was a tension over immigration. While Reagan shunned the nativist wing of his party during the 1980 campaign, the fight for influence over the party’s immigration policy was joined. Cadava provides a brief history of the battles, from the 1986 immigration reform bill to Pat Buchanan’s nativist fueled primary campaign against George H.W. Bush. Debates about immigration continued into George W. Bush’s attempts at immigration reform and were certainly central to the deep angst that Donald Trump’s hardline rhetoric on immigration evoked.
While these debates were ostensibly about policy, at their core they were about the politics of belonging. Hispanic Republicans placed a great deal of emphasis on patriotism, but most also saw themselves as members of immigrant and refugee communities in a way that put them at odds with the underlying ethos of the nativist wing of the party. Yet neither faction of the party either accepted or thoroughly defeated the other. Instead, Cadava concludes, they reached an “uncomfortable détente” by focusing on the middle ground of opposition to illegal immigration.
While some Hispanic Republican leaders grew tired of dealing with their party’s xenophobic outbursts and resigned from its politics completely, at least an equal number proved willing to maintain their party loyalty, either out of a sense of obligation or an eye to the long game of politics. For those who question how Hispanics could remain in the Republican Party in the Trump era, Cadava’s book should be instructive. Although many Hispanic Republicans were put off by the nationalist currents in the party, many have also lived through previous policy swings over immigration and likely believe that this one, too, will pass. Moreover, for many, immigration is no longer the most salient issue: Their belief in the rest of the traditional Republican platform is enough to keep them in the party.
The Hispanic Republican offers some key lessons to progressive and conservative observers of Hispanic politics. Progressives should not assume that the demographic trend in America is on their side, nor conservatives that it is against theirs. While early voting trends among Hispanics were erratic, they have reliably held at around 30 percent for Republican presidential candidates since Nixon’s 1972 victory and have sometimes even surpassed that. As recently as 2004, 44 percent of Hispanics voted for George W. Bush, a far greater number than either of Trump’s performances. While conservatives can disagree about the causes of these outcomes, they should not accept the argument that their movement is doomed by America’s changing demographics.
On the flip side, neither conservatives nor progressives should assume that Hispanics are naturally inclined to their way of thinking. Cadava documents the various essentialist theories of Hispanic conservative politics but shows that the candidates who performed well among Hispanics—from Nixon to Reagan to George W. Bush and even Donald Trump—all offered them something more than just the conviction that Hispanics would come to realize the congruence between their interests and those of the Republican Party. The book is a demonstration of the way political identities are shaped over time, sparking a sense of loyalty that is hard to abandon.
Cadava concludes that both parties will have to engage in the hard work of campaigning for Hispanic votes and, more, take Hispanics seriously as political actors. Democrats cannot count on Hispanics permanently shunning the Republican Party: There are no indications that Hispanics will stop giving Republicans a third of their vote anytime soon. And while Republicans can take comfort in this fact, they cannot rely on the idea that Hispanics are naturally Republicans, at least if they want to progress from celebrating marginal gains to celebrating outright victories with this constituency.
Both parties would do well to recognize that, while each has undeniably cultivated a degree of loyalty and affinity among Hispanics, the “Hispanic vote” is a much more multifaceted political constituency than has been assumed in our common parlance. Cadava compellingly presents a diverse assortment of Hispanics comprising various backgrounds and priorities and showing no proximate signs of a political retreat.
Gil Guerra is a recent graduate of Swarthmore College and co-host of the podcast “Panorama: on politics, Latinos, and conservatism.”
Luis Parrales is a recent graduate of the University of Richmond and co-host of the podcast “Panorama: on politics, Latinos, and conservatism.”
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