By David Lightman, Natalie Fertig and Jessica Koscielniak McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
LAS VEGAS — German Maldonado could back a Republican. But it’s not likely, not when Donald Trump is calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals.
“The whole GOP base, they tend to attack most of our people,” said the graphic designer, who came to this country from Mexico 25 years ago.
That, in a nutshell, is the challenge Republicans face in 2016, a problem that looms as a serious threat to their hopes of winning in swing states like Nevada.
Talk to Latinos in the Las Vegas area and you’ll find their views strikingly similar. Top concerns are better schools, more ability to expand their businesses, and leaders who share their strong religious and moral beliefs.
That gives Republicans tremendous potential. And in some states, including Nevada, the party has done well among Latinos. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval is Mexican-American. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, the nation’s first female Hispanic governor, was re-elected overwhelmingly last year. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott won 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2014. President George W. Bush won 39 percent of Nevada’s Hispanic vote in 2004.
Today, though, there’s Trump and a party that’s seen as too eager to kick immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally out of the country.
“We’re digging a very, very deep hole,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
It hardly matters at the moment that two candidates, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are Cuban-American, or that Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor, is married to a Mexican-American and has strong ties to the Latino community.
Republicans were starting to have trouble even before 2015. President Barack Obama, viewed as sympathetic to Hispanic interests, won 71 percent of the Nevada Latino vote in 2012, the same percentage he received nationwide.
Republican Latino voters say they’re well aware of the difficulty of persuading friends and family to join them.
Immigration is the gateway to the community’s heart. Most Latinos in Nevada are either immigrants or know someone who recently arrived in this country. Nevada’s population is about 27 percent Hispanic, and 4 in 5 are of Mexican origin.
When Latinos hear some Republicans eager to deport immigrants here illegally, or refer to them in offensive ways, they recoil.
Jesus Marquez, who runs an air conditioning business, grew up in a Democratic household but turned Republican after watching details of President Bill Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky unfold.
“They devalued the office when he lied,” Marquez said. He saw Republicans as the party of higher standards.
Peter Guzman, a real estate developer, has long been sympathetic to Republicans, but he can’t stomach Trump’s comments.
“It’s going to be a challenge for me to embrace a candidate who has completely talked to my culture in an undignified way,” he said.
Some Latinos are more forgiving.
Ariel Gomez, a handyman, urged listening closely to what Trump is saying. He was not condemning all Mexicans, Gomez said.
Trump said in June, when he announced his candidacy, that Mexico was sending to the United States “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Krissian Marquez, an entrepreneur, sees herself as one of those good people. Born in Mexico, she grew up in California. She understands the lure of Democrats. “When people first come here,” she said, “they say, ‘I’m going to do this for you,’ so obviously that’s how people vote and a lot of them just stick to that.”
Marquez warmed to Republicans as her daughters began school. She appreciated how George W. Bush, as governor of Texas and as president, understood the Latino community’s desire for better schools.
One of her daughters went to the neighborhood school and it was “not the best,” Marquez said. Another daughter had the freedom to choose, went to a magnet school and did much better, she said.
“I fight for what I believe in, and Republicans are more about school choice,” Marquez said.
Republican officials see progress. From 2009 to 2013, “we didn’t show up,” said Jennifer Sevilla Korn, deputy political director of the Republican National Committee. “The big thing we changed is to be on the ground in these communities all the time.”
Democrats scoff. “For decades now, we’ve heard this argument that Hispanic voters will trend towards the GOP. In reality, they’re trending the opposite way because they’re so turned off by the Republican Party’s rhetoric and lack of action” on a variety of issues, said Eric Walker, Democratic National Committee spokesman.
One big 2015 Republican talking point was the diversity of its presidential candidates. While Democrats offer two white men and a woman married to a former president, Republicans have two Latinos, an African-American and a woman.
Republican prospects might improve depending on the nominee. Jeb Bush is a favorite. If Bush is not the nominee, “I don’t think we’ll do as well” among Latinos, said campaign manager Danny Diaz.
Cruz gets little sympathy. Among his most prominent supporters is Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. In 2013, King referred to many Mexican immigrants as people who “weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
Rubio stirs interest, but is not well-known. He gets praise for his 2013 support for bipartisan legislation that created a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally. He later backed away from that proposal, saying he wanted assurances that border security would come first.
To many familiar with him, Rubio shines. “Him being the face of the presidency … there’s a level of pride, knowing it can contribute with a vote,” said Mike Soto, a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
None of that may matter unless Republicans overcome the immigration hurdle and convince people such as Carlos Antiles, a bartender, that they’re on his side.
Antiles voted for Obama twice. His wife is of Mexican ancestry; he’s Cuban. Though Obama did halt deportations of the children of immigrants here illegally who met certain criteria, he never really delivered on his promise to overhaul the immigration system.
Antiles wants to vote Republican, and he likes Rubio. But Trump? “I don’t like this guy,” he said.
(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Randall Hill