Freedom Summit Signals to the Latino Electorate

What is the meaning of this past weekend’s Freedom Summit for Latino voters and their options in the 2016 Republican primaries and general election?

The answer to this question necessarily begins with the political identity of the event’s sponsor, Iowa Rep. Steve King, one of the most vocal opponents of immigration reform in Congress. He gained a national profile by delivering inflammatory remarks about immigrants on a regular basis. A few examples: he described a guest in the White House viewing box at President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech as a “deportable”, and he famously remarked that undocumented immigrants with “cantaloupe”-sized calves smuggle bundles of marijuana across the border. On the eve of the summit, King pointed to DREAM Action Coalition members who were protesting nearby and called them “people that come from another planet.”

Political pundits correctly noted that King’s Freedom Summit addressed topics other than immigration. Common Core, the Affordable Care Act, taxes and foreign policy were also discussed by Republican presidential aspirants. But because there’s no mystery about King’s immigration stance, to arrive in Iowa for his event meant to agree with him or, at the very least, validate his political views and statements. Although King is accorded such king-making powers in large part because his state is supposedly crucial to the GOP nomination process, the fact that so many of the party’s top politicians answered King’s summons is itself indicative of the how little key segments of the Republican base care about the potential problems caused by King’s politics. (I say “supposedly” because Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, John McCain in 2000 and, by a the razor-thin margin of 35 votes, Mitt Romney in 2012 all lost Iowa yet proceeded to win the GOP nomination anyway.)

None of the Republicans in the growing field of potential 2016 presidential aspirants was compelled to go to Iowa, of course. And, indeed, the list of non-attendees is particularly revealing. If so much of politics is about showing up, who showed up and who didn’t in Des Moines this past weekend is almost as powerful a signal to Latino voters as what those Republicans actually said. Let’s start with the non-attendees.

Although it’s unlikely that Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Pence and John Kasich will all formally declare themselves presidential candidacies, early moves by Bush, Paul, Romney and Rubio indicate their strong intentions to do so. Of these, Bush and Rubio are the least surprising Freedom Summit defectors, given the very stark contrast between their stated positions on immigration. Bush is already a lightning rod for Republicans who oppose comprehensive immigration reform, and of course Rubio was derided by tea partiers and other CIR opponents for his ill-fated membership in the Senate’s “Gang of 8.”

Had they dared to descend upon Iowa, Rubio and especially Bush might have been greeted coolly, if not unceremoniously booed. The Latino Decisions 2014 election eve poll showed, Latinos felt this way before King’s summit: They rate Bush and Rubio slightly more favorably than other Republican contenders like Christ Christie or Rand Paul.

It’s not necessary to repeat here all of Summit attendees’ comments about immigration. With typical bombast, Donald Trump offered to build a “beauty” of a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and could be trusted because, he asked rhetorically, “who better than” than a real estate builder like himself to do it. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the message Congress needed to hear was, “Secure the border now, override this president’s lawless executive order, restore law and order to our border with Mexico, stand up to the face of evil and protect our citizens.” Pithy Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a favorite among social conservatives, summarized the prevailing view: “We should not be employing illegal immigrants. Do we have the ability to seal the border? Yes. We don’t have the will.”

But the most surprising comments came from the man who effectively finished second behind Romney in the GOP presidential primary four years ago, Rick Santorum, who went a bit further in criticizing the levels of *legal* immigration. Noting that “there have been more people legally coming into this country than any 20-year period in American history,” the 2012 presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator then said: “There are more people not born in this country than have ever been in the history of this country. And it’s affecting American workers. Why? Because the vast majority of the people come in under-educated and unskilled…We need to stand for an immigration policy that puts Americans first and American workers first.” Unless I have parsed his words too carefully, Santorum implied that even naturalized but foreign-born American citizens should be treated differently by employers from citizens born in the United States.

If there was a wild card Republican at the Summit, it was Chris Christie. Considered an “establishment” Republican at an event dominated by the party’s more conservative leaders, the New Jersey governor candidly invited attendees to be open-minded about his candidacy and not to establish “purity” standards for the party. He never uttered the word “immigration”, most likely because it would invite criticism over his support for the New Jersey Dream Act that he signed into law one year ago, and his earlier remarks in favor of a path to citizenship. Christie seems intent on finding a way to attract conservative primary voters yet retain his image as an establishmentarian moderate. Last fall, Christie has blasted President Obama for his use of executive action on immigration, which Latinos overwhelmingly support. But, over the last several months, he has cleverly avoided articulating what he would do if president to resolve the immigration issue.

Latino voters care about more than immigration, of course. But as Latino Decisions’ poll results show, immigration increasingly serves as a gateway issue that bifurcates politicians, whatever their partisan affiliation, into two subgroups: those who support comprehensive immigration reform and can thereby gain an audience with American Latinos on economic, security or other public policy issues; and those who forfeit that extended hearing because they oppose CIR. With the possible exception of Christie, the assembled Republicans in Iowa this past weekend clearly reside in the second category.

Thomas Schaller is political director at Latino Decisions, a political columnist for the Baltimore Sun, and professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Whistling Past Dixie (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and his most recent book is The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House (Yale University Press, 2015).