In a Shift for GOP, Marco Rubio Demonstrates the Power of Spanish

Beth Reinhard
National Journal

By delivering the Republican response to the State of the Union speech in Spanish, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Tuesday broke through an increasingly powerful language barrier between the political establishment and the nation’s fastest-growing demographic.

Rubio pretaped his remarks in Spanish and was the first opposition leader whose official response was broadcast on English and Spanish television networks.

"Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in,” Rubio said, making it personal by referring to his heavily Hispanic hometown of West Miami. “My neighbors aren’t millionaires. They’re retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare. They’re workers who have to get up early tomorrow morning and go to work to pay the bills. They’re immigrants, who came here because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy.”

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Two months after a presidential election in which Hispanics overwhelmingly rejected Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Rubio’s high-profile appearance on the Spanish-language networks is another sign of his party's reckoning with an increasingly diverse electorate. It also showcased a major advantage for the Cuban-American senator, or any other Spanish-speaking candidates, over other potential presidential rivals in 2016.

Washington is only starting to appreciate the enormous reach of the Spanish-language media. Univision, the largest television network, averages 3.7 million viewers nightly and routinely outguns one or more of its broadcast competitors, particularly among young adults. Its Sunday morning public affairs show also averages more young viewers than the broadcast networks.

“When you speak to people in their native language, you are telling them we’re part of the same community. Even if Marco read the phone book tonight, that message would come across,’’ said Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, who provides commentary on CNN and its Spanish-language counterpart. “That’s a very different message from the Republican Party than what Hispanics have been hearing.”

Romney has been widely criticized for alienating Hispanic voters in the 2012 campaign by suggesting “self-deportation” as a solution to illegal immigration, and the national Republican Party has struggled to connect ever since former President George W. Bush’s successful outreach efforts earned more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.

Five years ago, Univision had to call off a scheduled debate when seven of the eight Republican primary candidates, including Romney, declined. That meant the Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, got to make history in the fall of 2007 by participating in the first presidential debate broadcast in Spanish.

Under pressure from prominent Hispanic Republicans -- including Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House -- the Republican candidates showed up for a debate aired by Univision two months later. “You're asking candidates to debate in front of a Hispanic audience, and not to do so would be a disservice,'' Rubio told The Miami Herald at the time.

But when he ran as a tea party-backed conservative in the 2010 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, Rubio pivoted toward the right wing of his party and endorsed making English the official language of the U.S. “We have to have a common language that unites the people,” he said during the campaign. His Democratic opponent, then-Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, ran an attack ad that portrayed Rubio standing in front of a border fence and saying “Solo Ingles” (English only).

Rubio hasn’t mentioned English-only since his election and did not cosponsor a bill from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would preclude the government from making government documents in other languages. On Tuesday night, however, Rubio found himself clearly at odds with the English-only advocates in giving his remarks in two languages.

“We think it’s pandering to Hispanics,” said Karin Davenport, a spokeswoman for U.S. English, an advocacy group. “To assume they don’t know English and have to be spoken to in their native language promotes division. Everyone in the U.S. should be tied together with a common language.”

The group and a couple of members of Congress, including King, have raised objections to a new initiative from House Republicans to send out press releases in Spanish. But the increasing consensus from the GOP establishment is that the party has to step up its outreach or risk permanent exile from the White House.

In 2004, then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who went on to run for president four years later, was the first member of the opposition party to respond to the State of the Union speech in Spanish. The first Republican to respond in Spanish was Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami in 2010. But until Rubio, the Spanish-speaker opposition leaders had not been given the honor of also delivering the nationally televised response in English.

In another sign of the Hispanic community’s growing political and economic clout, Univision and ABC News announced Monday a new cable network called Fusion that will cater to that audience in English-language programming. Fox News launched a Spanish-language network, MundoFox, one year ago. A Latino Decisions nationwide poll on the eve of the 2012 election found that 38 percent of Hispanic voters watch Spanish-language television every day and another 24 percent watch weekly.

“A politician who can communicate his or her message on Spanish-language television to the fastest-growing minority in this country is increasingly powerful,” said Democratic consultant Maria Cardona, who specializes in Hispanic outreach. “It’s very smart of the Republican Party to have Rubio do this. Now the Republican Party is going to have to finish the sentence, by making changes in their policies, which you are starting to see with immigration.”

Rubio is part of a bipartisan group of senators who last month unveiled a sweeping set of reforms that includes allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, establishing a guest-worker program, making it easier for high-skilled engineers and scientists to get visas, and tightening border security.

“We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest,” Rubio said Tuesday night. “We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”

Obama, who failed to keep his promise to overhaul the immigration system in his first term, also included a pitch for reform in his speech. “Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away and America will be better for it,’” he said. “Let’s get it done.”

Obama invested more money in Spanish-language television and radio ads in 2008 and 2012 than any presidential candidate before him, and he has given interviews to Univision, Telemundo, and CNN en Espanol. His interviews, like others with English-speaking politicians, are translated or presented with captions.

“Obama has made sure Latinos are hearing his message directly from him,” Cardona said. “When the president is interviewed on Univision, it’s compelling. But you cannot overstate the power of the emotional connection that is triggered when you hear your own language.”