When George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, a record for a Republican presidential candidate, DeeDee Garcia Blase took pride in knowing that she'd played a part. A fifth-generation Mexican American from Texas, Blase had volunteered for the Bush campaign in her adopted state of Kansas, handing out flyers, working shifts at a phone bank and offering up her coffee shop for meetings of the local Chamber of Commerce.
Like many former soldiers, she had found her way to the GOP through the military; she'd served in the Air Force under Bush's father in the 90s (as a dog handler on a bomb squad). She was also a "diehard" supporter of gun rights, and all in all, a "capitalist, small taxes, less government Ronald Reagan type of Republican" who wished more Latinos shared her views and who tried to spread the gospel in whatever small ways she could.
But in 2009, when Arizona adopted a stringent law that tightened the vise on undocumented immigrants, Blase, who lives in Arizona, felt that her views were no longer represented by the Republican establishment, at least in her state. In an effort to change the Republican Party "from within," she started her own organization, Somos Republicans, and within a few months had signed up 6,000 members, a number that perhaps carries more weight that one would expect.
True, there are individual Tea Party rallies that attract bigger crowds, but conservative Latinos may be in a unique position when it comes to determining who occupies the White House for the next term, or terms. Four of the country's most heavily Hispanic states -- Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida -- are pivots on which the next presidential election could turn.
In this context, 6,000 doesn't seem like such a small number after all. In fact, as Lionel Sosa, a former advisor to Ronald Reagan and a member of Somos Republicans, pointed out in a recent letter to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), 6,000 is the number by which Bush won the Latino vote in Florida in 2000.
For the past few months, members of Somos Republicans have been using whatever power this position grants them to kick dirt on the reputations of Republican candidates and officials who promote what Blase bluntly described as "bigotry and violence." By flooding newspapers and government offices with letters and emails, and by issuing statements on high-profile Republicans in an attempt to muster press, they hope to persuade Republican operatives to disown the far-right heroes of the Tea Party and steer the GOP down a more moderate path. High on their list of enemies are Mo Brooks, the Alabama congressman who said that he'd do anything to get rid of undocumented immigrants "short of shooting them," and Russell Pearce, the Arizona state senator who sponsored the state's tough SB 1070 law (and who now faces a recall election).
To bolster Somos' influence, Blase said she plans to release a scorecard grading every candidate for office around the country on a host of issues, including immigration. If she were to grade them now, she said, Michele Bachmann would receive the lowest score -- an F.
Rick Perry would earn a B, she said. He would have gotten an A, she added, had he not added a measure to an emergency session of the state senate earlier which would have essentially given police officers more authority to ask about the immigration status of detainees.
That measure "fired up Latinos in Texas," she said, and she didn't mean in a good way.
One of the "fired up" Texas Latinos is Lauro Garza, a retired police officer who has also worked as a U.S. Customs agent and a history teacher, and who sprinkles his conversations with spot-on impressions of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cheech Marin, among others. A few years ago he combined some of these talents to start a conservative talk show on the Internet.
"I used to say that my objective was 'to promote Latinos among Republicans and to promote Republicans among Latinos,'" Garza said, "and as I became more and more frustrated with the way things were going with the Republican party, as the tide of nativism rode in, I used to say 'to teach Republicans to have some damn respect for Latinos.'"
He wrote a blog, too, and after some of his postings came to Blase's attention, she signed him on to lead the Texas chapter of Somos Republicans. "We're trying to mitigate the damage to the Republican reputation," he said.
In his capacity as a Somos leader, Garza said he has had lunch with Rick Perry on two occasions.
"I was impressed," Garza said, adding that he doesn't usually feel that way about people. "I used to jump out of helicopters," he explained.
Perry struck him as confident, funny, "very conservative," and, crucially, sympathetic to Mexican Americans.
So when the governor, who announced his candidacy for president on Saturday, supported the Texas immigration bill, Garza said he was disappointed.
It was a "terrific mistake," Garza said. "He and his advisers have demonstrated really remarkable stupidity in the past. So I hope they will come to us at Somos Republicans for guidance."
That is the hope of Somos Republicans in general -- to guide the Republican Party as they attempt to maneuver through the minefield of immigration politics. Of course, there's no indication that they will achieve that kind of influence.
"It doesn't seem realistic right now," said Pilar Marrero, who writes about politics for the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion. "Politically, the party is going in the other direction. All the local initiatives that have been passed in the four years -- harsh anti-immigration laws ranging from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma to Arizona, all of these were led by Republicans. Some of the individual politicians who have been pushing these laws, they're very shrill, and they're very extreme and the mainstream of the Republican Party hasn't fought back. I respect Blase's passion about it and her attempt to get her party to listen, but I'm not sure it's having a lot of effect."
Blase does not necessarily disagree. Although she takes some credit for the movement to recall Russell Pearce, she says she's had to contend with growing skepticism among Latino Republicans concerning the feasibility of changing the party from the inside. Soon after starting Somos, she said, members of the organization began to question their party affiliation. "I said, 'Stick it out,'" she recalled.
But she found it harder and harder to follow her own advice, and in June, she finally left the party and registered as an independent. She said the turning point came when Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American junior senator from Florida, sponsored a federal immigration bill viewed by many as an attack on undocumented immigrants. Rubio may be popular with Cubans in Miami, said Blase, but "every Mexican American in the Southwest knows he's an enemy to the immigrant cause."
Rubio's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As a defector from the GOP, Blase started a new organization, one aimed expressly at attacking the Tea Party. She called it the National Tequila Party (she said she wanted a name that would appeal to young people).
According to Blase, the Tequila Party has so far registered 2,000 members, mostly Democrats or independents, and like Somos Republicans, it is preparing a scorecard, one that exclusively rates politicians on their immigration records. "Obviously we're not going to support any Tea Party politicians," she said.
In the meantime, said Blase, she will be looking to hire someone to replace her at Somos Republicans. She will consider applicants "who will not toe the party line."