In 2010, Marco Rubio was a rising star in Florida politics. At age 39, he was already a former speaker of the Florida House and working hard to defeat the state’s governor for an open U.S. Senate seat.
Raoul Lowery Contreras thought Rubio was just the kind of young Latino Republican who should be in Congress. So Contreras, a Mexican American immigrant and Republican Party foot soldier who started young working for the senator who replaced President Richard Nixon in Congress, did some legwork. A few weeks later, Contreras delivered Rubio to the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club, a stomping ground for mostly white, wealthy people a half-hour up the coast from San Diego. In the three hours Rubio spent at the club, he raised $50,000. Contreras can’t remember what Rubio said. But he remembers the reaction.
“I saw those conservative women, especially the older ones, practically have orgasms over Rubio,” said Contreras, 71, who writes a column for Spanish and English-language newspapers around the country. “They could barely contain themselves. At one point we were charging $250 for a photo with Rubio and there was absolutely no shortage of men and women in that line. I knew this guy was going places.”
Rubio, now Florida’s junior U.S. senator, spent much of this week making the rounds on Spanish and English-language television and offering speeches to Republican and business-friendly audiences. After weeks of speculation about potential GOP vice presidential nominees, the chatter about Rubio’s prospects as Mitt Romney’s running mate has once again picked up volume.
Latinos represent the nation’s largest minority group, one of the fastest growing segments of the population and an electorate that the most optimistic projections place around 12 million voters this year. Latino votes are critical to the campaigns of both Romney and President Barack Obama. And, while many white, non-Hispanic commentators and some Latino political operatives have trumpeted the tea party-connected Rubio as a one-man solution to the Republican Party’s problems, other Latino politicos who track the Hispanic electorate said Rubio’s path is anything but clear.
In an NBC News/ Telemundo/ Wall Street Journal poll released this week, Latino voters preferred Obama to Romney by 34 percentage points.
Rubio has proposed an alternative to the Dream Act, a mostly Democratic proposal that would give some young people brought to the country illegally as children a path to legal U.S. status. Rubio has not committed to what his proposal would include.
Even a watered down Dream Act could be a boon to Rubio and Republicans, Barreto said. About 53 percent of Latino voters have a relative or close friend who is an undocumented immigrant, according to a June 2010 Latino Decisions poll. But such a law is unlikely to move forward this year, he said. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, chairs the House Judiciary Committee and would have to agree before the bill could reach the full House for a vote. Smith has made it clear that he will oppose any bill that offers any undocumented immigrant legal status, Barreto said.