Why Ted Cruz’s presidential candidacy is important

Ronald Reagan once said that Latinos were Republicans. They just didn’t know it yet. Ted Cruz, the Republican U.S. senator from Texas who has become…

Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz on Monday, March 23, became the first major candidate to declare his candidacy for the 2016 presidential campaign. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Ronald Reagan once said that Latinos were Republicans. They just didn’t know it yet.

Ted Cruz, the Republican U.S. senator from Texas who has become the first major candidate to officially enter the 2016 presidential campaign, is quietly gambling that those words were never truer than in the upcoming campaign where he also apparently becomes the first major Latino figure to run for the White House.

The importance of Cruz’s entry into the race, however, is not that he is running as a Latino. Clearly he is not. Nor, quite frankly, should any Hispanic be running for that or any office on his ethnicity any more than, say, a Jewish candidate entering any campaign as little more than a Jewish candidate.

Instead, the significance of Ted Cruz is that he has not made his Latinoness an issue nor a cornerstone of his candidacy, and that the news media has not been quick to make him being Hispanic the historical importance that it placed on Jesse Jackson when he ran for president in 1984 or Barack Obama when he announced he was entering the 2008 campaign.

All that is important for the large segment of Latinos in America who are not recent immigrants, who are no more the activists of immigration reform than they were of the Chicano movement back in the 1960s.

Those Latinos made up most of the 8 million Hispanic Americans in the U.S. in 1972, and they along with with children and grandchildren still make up the bulk of the 50 million now in the country and, more importantly, of those who are eligible and registered to vote — and who do vote.

They are the ones that Ronald Reagan was talking about. And they are the ones that Republicans are now targeting.

It is not new that many, including some conservative Republicans, believe that Latinos hold the fate of upcoming political elections in their hands.

What is new, though, is just how diligent and undeterred the GOP has been in quietly wooing the traditionally loyal Hispanics, trying to help them discover that, as the party patron saint Ronald Reagan said, they are Republicans and just haven’t realized it.

In the past year, the GOP has spent more than $10 million in improving its Hispanic field operations in key states and flooding the air with Spanish-language advertisements.

The Republican National Committee has also launched “Hispanic engagement field teams” in nine states, with two dozen paid staff members on the ground reaching out to Latinos.

“The message we are going to give Latinos is about jobs, about education and about Obamacare,” says the GOP’s Rosario Marin, the California political operative who was U.S. treasurer under George W. Bush.

Marin, now a RNC advisory board member, insists that the national debate on immigration has not hurt Republicans, pointing to Chris Christie carrying 51 percent of the Hispanic vote in his gubernatorial reelection triumph last year in New Jersey, and the GOP’s David Jolly winning a special congressional election in Florida.

In fact, a Pew Hispanic Center survey agreed that immigration is not the most important issue to Latinos, ranking behind education, the economy and health care.

Marin and others maintain that the anti-Republican sentiment over the congressional impasse is exaggerated and offset by President Obama’s struggles with the immigrant community over deportations.

SEE ALSO: One year after autopsy report: Has the GOP made progress?

The GOP is also drawing encouragement from a Gallup poll in Texas in which more Latinos identified themselves as Republican than in the country as a whole.

Democrats hold a 30 percent advantage among Latinos over Republicans nationally, but that difference is only 19 percent in Texas, where Democrats had hoped to make inroads into the GOP’s two-decade stranglehold on the Lone Star State in last year’s mid-term election but failed miserably.

James Duarte, a retired state employee a former Democrat and current independent, typifies third and fourth generation Latino Americans who he couldn’t see himself voting for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis – paradoxically over the issue that made her the state’s Democratic Party darling.

“I (couldn’t) get behind a candidate whose chief claim is being pro-abortion,” Duarte, an American G.I. Forum leader among Latino veterans, says of Davis, who skyrocketed to national fame last year because of a legislative filibuster opposing an abortion bill.

But Duarte’s disenchantment goes even deeper. Asked if he would be more enthusiastic over a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, he shook his head.

“I don’t see myself being any more interested in a Hillary Clinton campaign,” he said.

“I think I have just lost faith in the Democrats asking us to vote for them but not having one of us as the candidate at the top of the ticket.

“I’m waiting to see if the Republicans actually go that far. If they do. If they put someone like (Florida Senator Marco) Rubio on their national ticket, well, we’re talking a whole new ball game.”

How Republicans have been able to make those kinds of inroads with Latinos in Texas is unimaginable, given some of the headline-grabbing anti-immigrant rhetoric that has come to be associated with the GOP.

But Republicans say they have been reaching out to Latinos by distancing the mainstream GOP from the extremists and the inflammatory language.

“I understand the need to address the issue of illegal immigration, and I understand the need to secure borders, and I realize that’s critically important,” says Hector De Leon, a leader of the Associated Republicans of Texas, a Hispanic GOP group dating back to 1974.

SEE ALSO: Eva Longoria’s group looks to help Latinos build political power

“But by the same token, that issue can be addressed by not engaging in rhetoric that sounds like thinly veiled racism.”

It was in 1983, as he prepared for re-election, that President Ronald Reagan made his comment about Latinos not realizing they were Republicans.

He said it to San Antonio advertising guru Lionel Sosa, who as a political consultant would help Reagan secure a then record share of the Latino vote as he won re-election.

“When I say that Latinos share conservative values, when Ronald Reagan said that, we mean the love of family, the love of country, a commitment to personal responsibility, to hard work,” says Sosa.

“Convey those things and you will have a lot of Latinos who nod their heads and say, ‘Yes, yes, we do think alike.’ But from there, the Latino vote has to be earned just like any other.”