The Republican Party has been on a quest to make inroads with Hispanic voters, and the second presidential debate was tailored to delivering that message: The setting was California, where Latinos now make up the largest racial or ethnic demographic. The Spanish-language network Univision broadcast the event in Spanish, and Ilia Calderón, the first Afro-Latina to anchor a weekday prime-time newscast on a major network in the United States, was a moderator.
But questions directly on Latino and immigrant communities tended to be overtaken by bickering and candidates taking swipes at one another on unrelated subjects. Only three candidates — former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina — referred directly to Latinos or Hispanics at all. And only Mr. Pence pitched his economic message specifically toward Hispanic voters.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, whose state has the third-largest Latino population, appeared to suggest there was no need for specific overtures to Hispanics or independents when he had won by such large margins in his home state, including in Miami-Dade County, a former Democratic stronghold.
“I’m the only one up here who’s gotten in the big fights and has delivered big victories for the people of Florida,” Mr. DeSantis said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
In interviews, Latino voters and strategists called the debate a missed opportunity for Republicans: Few of the candidates spoke directly to or about Latinos or claimed any cultural affiliation or familiarity with them. The Republican field offered little in the way of economic plans to help workers or solutions to improve legal channels to immigration. The candidates doubled down on depictions of the nation’s southern border as chaotic and lawless.
Mike Madrid, a longtime Latino Republican consultant in California, said the tough talk could draw in the support of blue-collar Latino Republicans who did not hold a college degree and in recent years have tended to vote more in line with white voters. But the debate was only further evidence that the party had abandoned attempts to broaden its reach beyond Latino Republicans already in its fold. Republicans are “getting more Latino voters not because of their best efforts, but in spite of them,” he said.
Latinos are now projected to number about 34.5 million eligible voters, or an estimated 14.3 percent of the American electorate, according to a 2022 analysis by the Pew Research Center.
Although Latino voters still overall lean Democratic, former President Donald J. Trump improved his performance with the demographic in 2020 nationwide, and in some areas like South Florida and South Texas even made sizable gains. Debate over what exactly drove his appeal continues.
Some post-mortem analyses have found his opposition to city-led Covid pandemic restrictions that shut down workplaces and his administration’s promotion of low Latino unemployment rates and support for Latino businesses helped persuade Latino voters to his side, even when they disagreed with his violent and divisive approach to immigration.
Historically, about a third of Latino voters have tended to vote for Republican presidential candidates. But Latino Republicans differ from non-Hispanic Republicans on guns and immigration: Fewer Hispanic Republicans believe protecting the right to own guns is more important than regulating who can own guns, and Hispanic Republicans are less likely to clamor for more border security measures, according to the Pew Research Center.
At the debate on Wednesday, Ms. Calderón, who is Colombian and has gained prominence in Latin America for her incisive reporting on race and immigration, and the other moderators often turned to issues central to Latinos in the United States, including income inequality, gun violence and Black and Latino students’ low scores in math and reading.
But on the stage, the candidates’ attention quickly turned elsewhere. Mr. DeSantis — the only candidate to provide a Spanish translation of his website — accused Washington of “shutting down the American dream,” an idea popular with Latino workers, but mostly pitched himself as a culture warrior.
In response to a question on whether he would support a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people in the United States, Mr. Christie talked of the need for immigrant workers to fill vacant jobs. But in his central point, he pledged to increase the presence of troops and agents at the border with Mexico, calling for the issue to be treated as “the law enforcement problem it is.”
Mr. Pence dodged Ms. Calderón when she pressed him on whether he would work with Congress to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The initiative, which remains in limbo in the courts, is temporarily protecting from deportation roughly 580,000 undocumented immigrants who have been able to show they were brought into the country as children, have no serious criminal history and work or go to school, among other criteria. About 91 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents and 54 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners favor a law that would provide DACA recipients permanent legal status.
Although Mr. Pence described himself as the only candidate onstage who had tackled congressional reform before, he did not directly answer the question on DACA. Mostly, he used his responses to attack Vivek Ramaswamy and Mr. DeSantis before launching into a lengthy accounting of his track record on hard-line Trump policies.
“The truth is, we need to fix a broken immigration system, and I will do that as well,” Mr. Pence said. “But first and foremost, a nation without borders is not a nation.”
When asked how he would reach out to Latino voters, Mr. Scott highlighted his chief of staff, who he said was the only Hispanic female chief of staff in the Senate and someone he had hired “because she was the best, highest-qualified person we have.” But he, too, quickly turned to attacking his home-state rival, former Gov. Nikki Haley.
The exchanges were a marked difference from the 2016 presidential debate when Senator Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, defended speaking Spanish and personalized their experiences with immigration and the Latino community.
Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who helped run Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign last election cycle, said they also were different — and less effective — from those of Mr. Trump. Missing were the pledges “to bring jobs back to America, buy American and drain the swamp,” he added, messages that he said tended to resonate with Latinos and Latino men in particular.
“Their campaigns have become such grievance politics that there is not a positive message that is radiating from anyone,” Mr. Rocha said. The shift could also hurt Republicans with a Latino community that skews young and tends to be aspirational, he argued.
In South Texas, Sergio Sanchez, the former chairman of the Hidalgo County Republican Party, said he listened to the debate with dismay. He wanted to hear the candidates talk about pocketbook issues and energy policies. And he wanted them to stay on message and connect the dots for voters on why their economic policies were better than those under the Biden administration. Instead, he said, they spent more time swinging at one another.
That was not good for Latinos or anyone else, he said. “They swung and missed,” he added.
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