The Ripon Forum

Volume 47, No. 4

Fall 2013 Issue

Role Models

By on August 11, 2014 with 0 Comments

Winning the Hispanic Vote: What Republicans can learn from Chris Christie and Susana Martinez

by LESLIE SANCHEZ

lsanchezrfIn a state where 18 percent of the population is Hispanic, the residents of Union City are 85 percent Hispanic or Latino — more than any place in New Jersey. It was no coincidence that Governor Chris Christie chose Union City as the site for the last rally of his successful re-election campaign, an event that also featured the only out-of-state Republican Governor he brought into the Garden State to campaign for him — New Mexico’s Susana Martinez.

Christie’s choice of Union City and his selection of Governor Susana Martinez as his surrogate go a long way to explaining how he won an outright majority (51 percent) of the Hispanic vote, the first Republican Governor in three decades to do so — but it’s only part of the story.

In 2011, nearly two-thirds of Union City voters were registered as Democrats, compared to 6.5 percent Republicans. Just last year, 81 percent of the city’s voters supported President Barack Obama.

Yet on the night before New Jersey voted, Governor Christie and Governor Martinez were talking up a raucus crowd of 200 mostly Hispanic voters who had waited in the cold to cheer them. Martinez delivered half her remarks in Spanish.

Christie’s choice of Union City and his selection of Governor Susana Martinez as his surrogate go a long way to explaining how he won an outright majority (51 percent) of the Hispanic vote.

They were joined onstage by the City’s Democratic Mayor Kevin Stack, and by Celin J. Valdivia, the Democratic candidate for Commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation. The entire Union City Democratic Committee had crossed lines to endorse the Republican Governor, as had many of the city’s other municipal officials.

Christie borrowed from Woody Allen in his victory speech, attributing his success to “showing up.”

“While we may not always agree, we show up everywhere,” he said. “We just don’t show up in the places that vote for us a lot, we show up in the places that vote for us a little. We don’t just show up in the places where we’re comfortable, we show up in the places where we’re uncomfortable.”

It took a lot more than “showing up” — and therein lie the lessons for Republicans who seek to regain the trust of America’s fastest-growing community.

True, “showing up” can represent a powerful message to a community so long isolated from the political process. At the Union City rally, Democrat Blanca Diaz told a reporter, “the other governors, they never come here.”

“The governor has built inroads into the Latino community for the past 11 years, going back to his days as a U.S. Attorney,” observes Christie campaign advisor Michael Duhaime.

But it is what happens after Republicans show up that matters. Christie has governed as a fiscal conservative and he has been a sworn enemy of the Garden State’s powerful teachers’ unions. In Union City, however, he’s remembered for working diligently and in good faith with community leaders and Democrats in City Hall on issues ranging from education reform and charter schools to property taxes and public safety.

His success is also a matter of tone. Calling Christie “plain spoken” is putting it politely, and yes, he can come off as brusque — but it is impossible to doubt his sincerity or the quality of his intentions. That’s how to build bridges with 51 percent of Hispanics, not by insulting their intelligence or pandering.

Christie has governed as a fiscal conservative and he has been a sworn enemy of the Garden State’s powerful teachers’ unions. In Union City, however, he’s remembered for working diligently and in good faith with community leaders.

Hispanics want what everybody else wants: a good job, a nice place to live in a safe neighborhood, and for our kids to have a better life than ours. Christie delivered that, and New Jersey’s Hispanic voters returned the favor by trusting him to continue to do so.

It certainly didn’t hurt that Christie has wisely rejected the shrill anti-immigration rhetoric of some Republicans. It offends and alienates Hispanics — immigrants and native-born alike. Late in the campaign, citing an improved fiscal climate in the state, he even reversed his position on a state version of the DREAM Act that will allow undocumented students to take advantage of in-state tuition rates.

The Christie campaign’s reported $1 million in Spanish-language TV (from a warchest that allowed him to overspend his opponent by a margin of 10:1) was likewise clearly a factor.

smccrfIt’s important to note, too, that New Jersey’s Latino population is much more diverse than in many parts of the country. Assimilated Cubans and Puerto Ricans make up fully 50 percent of the Garden State’s Hispanic electorate, and neither group directly faces the broken immigration system that motivates so many other Hispanic communities toward the Democrats (Puerto Ricans enjoy U.S. citizenship due to the island’s being a U.S. Territory, while Cubans have refugee status). New Jersey also boasts significant populations of assimilated Brazilian, Spanish, and Portugese-Americans, who tend to be more fiscally conservative than other Latino groups.

Nevertheless, the lessons of Christie’s tenure and his campaign should not be lost on Republicans elsewhere.

Governor Martinez, too, has maintained astronomically high approval ratings in a blue state. According to a poll last month by Survey USA and Albuquerque station KOB, Martinez enjoys the support of 66 percent of New Mexico’s voters, including 70 percent of women, 64 percent of independents, and 44 percent of registered Democrats. (While cross-tabs were not provided, given that nearly half of New Mexico’s population is Hispanic, it is reasonable to believe that her approval numbers are consistently high within those communities as well).

Martinez, too, has built support by reaching across party lines to seek compromise wherever possible and by consistently putting the needs of her state’s hard-pressed population ahead of party politics and ideological conformity.

Martinez, too, has built support by reaching across party lines to seek compromise wherever possible and by consistently putting the needs of her state’s hard-pressed population (New Mexico’s poverty rate is second only to Mississippi’s and fully 20 percent of the state’s population is without health care) ahead of party politics and ideological conformity.

Like Christie, she has worked with a Democratic-controlled legislature to fashion a workable agenda that governs from the center-right. Like him, she rejected the GOP’s prevailing ideology to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.

As Republicans and Democrats alike study the lessons of Chris Christie’s stunning victory among Hispanics, each side should consider the words of Martin Perez, President of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey: “In the past,” he said, “what has happened is that the Democratic Party that we have endorsed a lot of times has taken us for granted, and the Republican Party didn’t pay much attention. We have to look beyond labels and look at what is in the best interest of community. He [Christie] tries to find common ground.” RF


Leslie Sanchez, author of “Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other,” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), was Director of the White House Initiative on Hispanic Education and is a Republican political strategist.

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