Charles and David Koch have launched a multimillion-dollar marketing effort aimed at persuading Latinos to vote Republican in 2016, and Milwaukee is high on their list of targeted cities. The Libre Initiative recently announced it’s in the process of hiring a state field director based in the Milwaukee area.
The director won’t have to travel far to coordinate with the group’s national spokeswoman — Rachel Campos-Duffy. She’s the wife of U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Hayward, a tea party leader.
Libre focuses mostly on swing states with significant Latino populations, such as Wisconsin. Last year, political analysts pinpointed the state as one of the top 10 where the Latino vote plays a major role in electoral results.
Wisconsin had about 135,000 eligible Latinos voters in the 2014 midterm elections, according to the Pew Research Center. Their vote played a role in President Barack Obama’s victory in Wisconsin in 2012.
An analysis by the Pew Latino Center found that Latinos nationally voted for Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent.
Republicans want to put a halt to that.
Using Spanish-language radio and other targeted media, Libre stresses GOP message points framed to resonate with Latino voters, such as the party’s strong opposition to abortion and its embrace of school choice. Some commercials aired by the group have gone so far as to claim that Democrats want to abort Latino babies, according to Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the Milwaukee-based immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera.
According to Libre’s marketing material, its goal is “to empower the U.S. Latino community so it can thrive and contribute to a more prosperous America.”
The Washington Post reported in May that Libre has quietly been building relationships with Latinos by providing them with such community services as driver’s license classes, tax preparation assistance, wellness checkups and food giveaways.
But along with the favors comes a heavy dose of right-wing ideology. Libre’s proselytizing is tailored to resonate with Latinos and overlooks the GOP’s demonization of immigrants and its opposition to immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 11.3 million undocumented workers currently living in the United States.
Instead, Libre’s messaging focuses on the Republican vision that an unfettered free-market system is the only way to lift people out of poverty.
Critics, including leading immigrant rights leaders, point out that the free-market system can only benefit people who are allowed to live here and receive equal treatment under the law. That’s something that’s glaringly missing from Libre’s agenda. The group, like the Republican Party as a whole, is more interested in keeping Latinos out of the country than letting them in, let alone helping them once they’re here.
The harsh rhetoric that GOP presidential contenders have leveled at Mexican immigrants is perhaps the most accurate barometer of how the party feels about Latino immigrants. It’s probably the single most difficult hurdle that Republicans must overcome in their campaign to win over Latinos.
GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “drug dealers” who must be deported to keep the nation safe. He wants to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and several other GOP candidates have declined to criticize that all-but-impossible proposal.
So it’s not surprising that Libre’s critics condemn its attempts to cultivate Latino voters as hypocritical trickery. After all, they say, Republicans have halted Obama’s deportation protection programs, which he issued through executive order.
In 2014, Obama issued the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, known as DAPA. It would have granted three-year exemptions from deportation to the undocumented parents of children born in the United States and of children with green cards.
But DAPA has been held up by a GOP lawsuit contending that the action exceeded presidential authority. The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to take up the case, which would affect more than 4 million people, in coming weeks.
Neumann-Ortiz and many other immigrant rights leaders say the Republican Party’s basic agenda also is detrimental to the working-class Latino immigrants currently living in the country. The GOP opposes raising the minimum wage, the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, for example — all programs that would give a leg-up to newly arrived immigrants. Republicans have also concocted a number of schemes to prevent poor people from access to voting.
Media Matters for Democracy looked at Libre’s policy positions and its leadership, composed entirely of GOP operatives, and concluded that the group urges Latinos to support policies that experts say go against their own interests and disenfranchise Latino voters.
Libre’s message aligns more with Republicans and with the principles and ideas of Charles and David Koch than the needs of Latinos.
But Libre plans to spend a lot of money to counter the hate talk of Trump and the hardline anti-immigrant positions of the Republican Party as a whole. Even Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, despite their Hispanic surnames, poll badly with Latinos due to their positions on immigration.
Libre has received at least $10 million from the Koch brothers and an additional $15.8 million from Freedom Partners, a group that serves as the hub of Koch-backed political operations.
Libre’s other donors are unknown. As a 501(c)4 organization, it’s not required to disclose its donors, making it a dark money group.
Among Libre’s opponents is state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, who represents the largest Latino community in Wisconsin.
“I am committed to making sure my constituents are made aware that the primary goal of this right-wing organization is to get them to vote against their best interests by voting for Republican candidates who have consistently blocked my efforts to pass pro-Latino, pro-immigrant bills like drivers cards for undocumented immigrants (AB 343) and even symbolic efforts like a bill that would honor national civil rights leader, Cesar Chavez (AB 437),” Zamarripa said in a prepared statement.
Neumann-Ortiz said Libre will present obstacles to her efforts in 2016 to educate Latino voters about who is really on their side.
Most of the Latino voter education her group has done is “more nuanced” about the candidates than it will be in this election cycle, she said: “This time we’ve had to take a hard position against the Republican party.”
Neumann-Ortiz said poor Latinos are one of the least-informed groups politically. “For us, our program is not just going to be get out the vote, it’s going to have to be don’t be fooled by Libre.”
Another obstacle immigrant rights groups face in 2016 is the perception that Obama and the Democratic Party failed to live up to promises about immigration reform.
But Voces has proven up to the task. In 2014, when the Latino vote declined nationally, the 10 Milwaukee wards with the highest concentrations of Latino voters rose 25 percent over 2010. They went with the candidates favored by Voces.
What courts do next year with the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive actions could prove to be a major factor in the 2016 presidential election, said Neumann-Ortiz. If the president’s order is upheld, there will be a lot of goodwill toward Democrats among Latino voters.
Many people credit the president’s enormous success with Latino voters in 2012 to his adoption of the DACA policy that year. The policy gave work authorization to undocumented immigrants who came to the country before they were 16 and before July 2007, who were between 16 and 30 years of age, who had completed high school or received a GED and who had no criminal record.
Whatever ideology Libre plans to use to win Latino voters, nothing can compare with a progressive stance on immigration. Sixty-five percent of Latinos living in the United States have an undocumented relative living here as well.
“Immigration is a very important issue because it’s personal — it affects family, friends and neighbors,” Neumann-Ortiz says.
With the GOP’s current hardline stance on immigration, that should make her job easier, no matter what Libre does.