by Mary Kay Linge
The idea that minorities vote Democrat is an ingrained assumption of American politics. But Mike Garcia — the son of a Mexican immigrant — is proof that Hispanic Republicans are alive and well in Donald Trump’s GOP.
Earlier this month, Garcia flipped a Democratic congressional district in California — the seat formerly held by scandal-scarred “throuple” Rep. Katie Hill — into the Republican column for the first time in 22 years.
Garcia, a 44-year-old former Navy fighter pilot, is now a newly sworn-in member of Congress, representing a district where more than half the population is nonwhite, 35 percent of it Hispanic — after beating his Democratic rival by 10 points in a May 12 special election.
While most of America’s Latinos have voted Democrat since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, around 30 percent of them have maintained a deep loyalty to the Republican Party. And that core has remained solid throughout Trump’s term in the White House.
In his new book “The Hispanic Republican” (Ecco), historian Geraldo Cadava examines how the GOP built that loyalty on a foundation of personal connections — and cemented it with ideological bonds.
“For the past half-century, Hispanic Republicans and the Republican Party have been deliberate and methodical in their mutual, sometimes hesitant, embrace,” Cadava writes.
Garcia is now one of five Republicans of Hispanic descent in the House of Representatives, compared to 36 Hispanic Democrats. This November, more than a dozen Hispanic Republicans are vying to join him by flipping blue districts to red.
One of them is Nicole Malliotakis, the Cuban-American state assemblywoman from Staten Island who was Mayor de Blasio’s Republican challenger in 2017. She is mounting a campaign against first-term Rep. Max Rose (D-SI/Brooklyn) in the fall. A daughter of immigrants — her father was born in Greece and her mother fled Fidel Castro’s regime in 1959 — Malliotakis grew up speaking Spanish at home.
“I think you’ll see more pockets of the Latino community voting Republican this November,” Malliotakis told The Post. “On issue after issue, the Democratic Party is driving a wedge between itself and Latino voters.”
Trump’s approval rating among Hispanic-Americans stands at 44 percent, a Hill/HarrisX poll found this month. That’s a notable jump over the 28 percent of Latinos who voted for him in the 2016 presidential contest.
Given Trump’s “America-first” policies, his hard-line border promises and his combative rhetoric, that number is the last thing that the GOP elite ever expected to see.
Party insiders have believed for years that only an embrace of comprehensive immigration reform, including permissive entry policies and citizenship for those here illegally, could fend off electoral doom in the face of Hispanic Americans’ demographic growth.
But as Cadava’s book shows, the roots of Latinos’ GOP support are entangled with their complex, sometimes contradictory feelings about immigration — going all the way back to President Richard Nixon’s first term.
Nixon was set on making inroads into the Hispanic vote during his 1972 re-election campaign. Mexican-American support had been important in the California native’s races for Congress and the Senate years before. But his squeaker of a White House victory in 1968 came with little help from Latinos, who went overwhelmingly for Democrat Hubert Humphrey.
To goose enthusiasm, Nixon tried a classic patronage-politics maneuver: He named a Mexican-American businesswoman, Romana Acosta Bañuelos, to be treasurer of the United States. It was the highest-level federal appointment yet for any Hispanic American.
And it was nearly derailed two weeks later, when federal agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service busted the tortilla factory that Bañuelos operated in Gardena, Calif. Seventy undocumented employees took to their heels; 36 of them were caught and bused back over the border.
It was a dirty trick, Bañuelos insisted, sparked by Nixon foes who opposed her nomination. The news media was even on hand to cover the raid, she complained.
But despite the embarrassing headlines, the president remained loyal to his nominee. She was confirmed by the Senate a few weeks later.
Bañuelos became a top Nixon campaign surrogate, traveling to more than a dozen states, exhorting Latinos to “vote for those officials who give us deeds instead of words.”
“Some Chicanos called Bañuelos a vendido, or sell-out,” Cadava writes. Union-aligned Democrats condemned her for hiring illegal immigrants, who, they said, “deprive United States citizens and lawful resident aliens of necessary employment.”
But many Latinos, especially fellow entrepreneurs, sympathized. Hiring undocumented workers was not technically illegal at the time. Some proposed a federal law requiring citizenship verification in hiring, the beginnings of today’s E-Verify system.
Nixon romped to a 520-electoral-vote landslide in 1972 — with the support of 31 percent of Hispanic voters. Four years earlier, fewer than 10 percent of Latinos had pulled the lever for him.
The next year, a former congressman from Texas named George H.W. Bush took the reins of the Republican National Committee and quickly organized affiliate groups dedicated to Hispanic outreach. Like Nixon, he had learned in his own state how crucial the Latino vote could be.
Bush’s initiative paid off. When Nixon was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal, the RNC’s formal structures helped sustain the relationships the disgraced president had forged between the party and Latino voters.
But Republican attempts to build on Nixon’s foundation didn’t always go smoothly. One stumble became the stuff of campaign-trail legend in 1976, when President Gerald Ford was battling a primary challenge from former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. On a visit to San Antonio, Texas, Ford chomped down on a traditional Mexican tamale — and bit right through its inedible cornhusk wrapper.
News photos of the moment, dubbed “The Great Tamale Incident” by a gleeful press, caught the president “choking on his own cultural ignorance,” Cadava writes. The faux pas boosted Reagan in the Texas primary and hurt Ford in the general election, which he lost with a paltry 19 percent support from Latino voters.
Reagan, as the party’s nominee in 1980, won them back — and then some.
“Hispanics are already Republican,” Reagan told an aide that year, as he mapped out the first GOP media strategy targeting the Latino vote. “They just don’t know it.”
“Reagan based his appeal to Hispanics on ideological issues such as religion, patriotism and entrepreneurship,” Cadava explains. His “peace through strength” foreign-policy stance would appeal to Cuban Americans and other former refugees who saw America as their safe haven, the candidate believed.
Reagan won 35 percent of the Latino vote to seal his victory that year. Every Republican presidential win since has been built on a 25-percent-or-better showing among Hispanic Americans.
Trump, it’s clear, understands that history.
The president is pouring time and campaign funds into efforts to boost his Latino base. He hosted a conference call from the Oval Office with representatives of the “national Hispanic community” on May 20 and courted evangelicals in January at a rally-like speech at Miami’s Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesús, one of the nation’s largest Latino megachurches.
“We have God on our side,” he told the packed crowd.
“Trump’s Hispanic supporters don’t believe that Trump is racist,” Cadava writes. Because of that, they’re willing to let his inflammatory words slide. “If it weren’t for Trump’s big mouth, he’d have the highest approval ratings in history because of his accomplishments,” said an unnamed Puerto Rico Republican in Cadava’s book.
While most Hispanic Americans sympathize with illegal immigrants and favor a path to citizenship for those already here, large majorities agree with Trump’s policies — if not always with his rhetoric — regarding law and order at the border.
A Pew poll released in February found that 76 percent of all Hispanics want to beef up border-security measures and 66 percent favor cracking down on illegal crossings.
“For many immigrants I speak with, it’s about following the process legally,” Malliotakis said. “Many people followed the rules and worked hard.
“When they see things like the state Legislature giving illegal immigrants free college tuition, it diminishes the sacrifices of immigrants like my parents who did things the right way,” she said.
Recent immigrants are also drawn to the GOP as the party of business.
“Hispanic Americans are very entrepreneurial,” Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said this month in a “Latinos for Trump” virtual campaign event. “This is a president that values work, that is going to put the interests of workers and jobs ahead of the interests of some political movement or theory.”
And with refugee experiences in their recent memory, Malliotakis said, many Latinos who came to the United States from countries like Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are repelled by the Democratic Party’s flirtation with socialism.
“Being against an overreaching central authority, a belief in freedom and in limited government, those are the principles of the Republican Party,” she said. “When the Democrats have people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pushing socialism, their principles are looking like the very governments that my mother and millions of others fled.”
“I think there’s an awakening, and I think people are realizing just how far this Democrat Party has gone,” he told Breitbart News this month. Trump’s Republican party, he added, is about “putting the country first, and putting the Constitution and capitalism at the forefront.”
Mary Kay Lingem is freelance writer for the NY Post and author of Jackie Robinson: A Biography.