A new coalition of groups is rallying conservative Latino voters with an anti-gay marriage campaign launched on Wednesday in Nevada, a crucial swing state where President Barack Obama leads Mitt Romney by only 48 percent to 46 percent, according to the latest poll.
Funded by undisclosed social conservative donors, Nevada Hispanics, an offshoot of American Principles in Action, aims to spend up to $1 million on "outreach" and "mobilization" efforts. While it has not endorsed any presidential candidate, it could end up boosting Romney's chances in the state. The results of its efforts, meanwhile, may also serve as a test case for whether religiously conservative Latinos can be mobilized against marriage equality supporters like the president.
"Obama came out and announced his support for gay marriage, and evangelical pastors are upset without us even engaging them," said Alfonso Aguilar, a former George W. Bush administration immigration official who now heads up the Washington, D.C.-based Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, which is also affiliated with American Principles in Action. "What we're telling them is, 'This is what you have to do to advance your values.'"
As Aguilar acknowledges, his effort will be starting from scratch in an uphill fight to reverse a years-long trend of Republicans performing anemically among the state's Latino voters.
Nevada Hispanics plans to focus on three arguments: that Obama has failed on the economy; that the record number of deportations on his watch makes him "worse than Joe Arpaio"; and that his support for gay marriage contradicts Latino values.
"No one has ever really reached out to the Hispanic community that has a conservative voice," said Nelson Santiago, a spokesman for Nevada Hispanics. "The kinds of efforts that have been made have been half-hearted. They've been dismal. There's never been anything like this before."
But Nevada Hispanics may have its work cut out for it: In an NBC-Marist poll released on Tuesday, Obama lead Romney among Latinos 61 percent to 33 percent in Nevada, a figure similar to his national lead.
Only 22 percent of Nevada Latinos, the poll found, would be more likely to vote for Romney because of his opposition to gay marriage. A larger number, 34 percent, said they would be more likely to vote for Obama because of his newfound position in favor of it. And a plurality of 42 percent said it would make no difference to them.
The marriage issue, nevertheless, is dear to Nevada Hispanics' funders at American Principles in Action, the advocacy arm of the American Principles Project, a nonprofit for social conservatives founded by Princeton professor Robert George. George is at the forefront of an effort to craft an intellectual argument against same-sex marriage.
"We are a 501(c)4, so we don't have to reveal our funders. We don't reveal our funders," said Aguilar. "They're just concerned citizens who care deeply about the country and understand that Latinos can become an asset to the conservative movement."
"It's the characteristic of the beast, politics," said Santiago. "I doubt very much that [Obama] agrees with Bill Maher, some of the things he said about women, but he still took his money."
To become an asset for Republicans, conservative Latinos have will have to buck recent history. A similar effort on behalf of Carly Fiorina's 2010 California Senate campaign, also involving the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, failed miserably. Perhaps reacting to Fiorina's support for Arizona's draconian anti-immigration SB 1070 law, Latinos gave her only 31 percent of the vote, according to exit polls.
Aguilar also bandied about the $1 million figure in 2010, but the group wound up spending far less than that in California, according to campaign filings. Moreover Nevada Hispanics' unidentified funders -- who could include out-of-state, non-Latino wealthy conservatives -- could open it up to criticism.
Jon Ralston, a columnist and political observer in the state, told The Huffington Post that most ordinary voters will probably not focus on Nevada Hispanics' funding -- "I don't think most people care where the ads are coming from" -- but that it will nonetheless face challenges, even in a state where the unemployment rate stood at 11.7 percent in April.
"Hispanics have been hit disproportionately by the economy, and we have the worst economy in the country," Ralston said. But many Latino voters in the state are already organized by Democrats and the powerful Culinary Workers Union, whose 60,000 members staff the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.
"The Democratic operation, which has a Hispanic outreach component, has been in force now for two or three cycles," said Ralston. "It's very effective, and [Nevada Hispanics is] trying to create something overnight."
Democrats, for their part, are dismissive.
"Too little, too late," said Zac Petkanas, senior communications advisor for the Nevada State Democratic Party. "While Democrats have been organizing within Nevada's Latino community for years, this last-minute parachute into Nevada by an out-of-state group can't make up for the fact that the Republican field has the wrong priorities for Nevada['s] Hispanics, from Mitt Romney pledging to veto the DREAM Act to Dean Heller opposing comprehensive immigration reform."