THE BLOG
05/27/2009 07:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Republicans' Other Latino Problem

It seems these days, Republicans just can't attempt to do anything right without landing themselves in hot water as a result. As a result, they now face a no-win situation politically and racially. The forces of moderation (drastically diminished in the party though they may be) are up against the hardline conservatives. Add racial politics to this mix, and it's easy to see how Republicans have wound up between a rock and a hard place. And although it may sound like it, I'm not talking about Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court.

I wrote yesterday about the political conundrum Republicans (especially those in the Senate who actually get to vote on her confirmation) find themselves in over Sotomayor. But there's another struggle within the party over a Latino candidate with more profound overtones for the party as a whole, down in the race for a Senate seat in Florida.

Senator Mel Martinez is retiring from the Senate. Martinez, in a long Florida tradition, is both Latino and Republican. Unlike much of the rest of the country, up until very recently a large part of Florida's Latino population (who are Cuban-American) reliably voted with the Republican Party, since Republicans were seen as staunch supporters of their fight against Castro. This may now be changing, as the younger Latino population isn't as obsessed with Castro and Cuba as their older relatives (which has no bearing on this story, but is worth mentioning).

Martinez is the first Cuban-American ever to serve in the Senate. He also led the Republican National Committee for a year. But his seat is not a "traditional" Republican seat, since he has only served one term after winning the seat held by Democrat Bob Graham, who had retired. It was a close election, and Martinez won it 49.5 percent to the Democratic Betty Castor's 48.4 percent.

With Martinez retiring after a single term, the seat is up for grabs in 2010. And with no incumbent, this means primary battles as well as a general election. Two Republican candidates of note have thrown their hats into the ring, and have thus set up a lose-lose situation for the Republican Party. Former governor Charlie Crist is on one side of this ring, and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio is in the other corner. This pits a moderate white male Republican with an excellent chance to win (and hold the seat for Republicans), against a very conservative Cuban-American male Republican with (his supporters will tell you) a much better chance of winning than ultra-conservatives in places like Pennsylvania.

In fact, Pennsylvania has its own lose-lose sort of situation shaping up for Democrats, with a very similar dynamic -- a moderate (who just jumped the aisle due to a very conservative challenger in a very closed Republican primary) versus a "real Democrat" type of candidate. Call it the "What to do about Arlen Specter" problem.

But getting back to Florida, the choice is a tough one for the adults in the Republican Party who value winning a lot higher than they value absolute party purity. And one of the leading figures in this intra-party struggle is already feeling the heat over his decision. Because almost immediately after Crist announced his candidacy, Senator John Cornyn announced his support for Crist in the race. This came after Cornyn had said previously that he wouldn't get involved in a primary fight, and would wait for the outcome before endorsing anyone. Cornyn's endorsement was pretty ringing: "While I believe Marco Rubio has a very bright future within the Republican Party, Charlie Crist is the best candidate in 2010 to ensure that we maintain the checks and balances that Floridians deserve in the United States Senate." In other words, Cornyn wants to win this one.

John Cornyn is important because he is not just a Republican senator, he is also the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which is specifically in charge of getting more Republicans elected to the Senate.

Cornyn's endorsement of Crist has set off a firestorm of protest within party ranks, including an effort charmingly called "Not One Red Cent" which is calling for a boycott by Republican donors of the NRSC in the 2010 election. Which was not exactly the outcome desired by Cornyn.

Cornyn's reasons for endorsing Crist are two -- one practical, and one philosophical. On practical grounds, Cornyn (and others who have endorsed Crist) argue that Crist's poll numbers are fantastic in Florida, and he can ride his popularity right into the Senate, and easily defeat any Democratic contender because Floridians love him already. Crist would be a shoo-in, in other words. Rubio's supporters argue that there's plenty of time before the election, and as Rubio gains in name-recognition, his poll numbers will rise and he will prove to be competitive.

But philosophically the battle is a lot larger in scale, because it deals with the future direction of the Republican Party as a whole. There is an enormous ongoing battle which pits the Cheney/Limbaugh position of party purity (motto: "We can expand by shrinking!") against the "big tent" idea of the Republican Party (motto: "Remember winning elections? We do!") which is inclusive of different flavors of Republicanism. Party insiders who can read demographics are telling anyone who will listen that the party is doomed to being a regional party with no power (call them "Dixiecans") unless it starts fielding some candidates with a chance of winning -- even if they aren't the purest of the pure when it comes to acceptible Republican orthodoxy. The Dixiecans argue, however, that absolutely nothing is wrong with their message, instead what is wrong is the "RINOs" in the party ("Republicans In Name Only") who deviate from the core Republican mantra, and thus destroy the party from within.

Enter Marco Rubio. He has impeccable conservative credentials, and is the favorite of many Republicans. Charlie Crist, they feel, should be drummed out of the Republican Party for his centrism in general, and in particular for supporting President Obama's stimulus package. Crist even -- gasp! -- appeared onstage with Obama to push for the stimulus package's passage, a bit of video that is already being aired in Rubio's campaign ads (yes, there are already 2010 campaign ads, I am sorry to report). Rubio has a chance of winning as a staunch conservative, his supporters will tell you, and that would be much better than Crist winning and then not voting they way they would like. As I said, there are parallels to the Arlen Specter problem for Democrats here.

Plus, Rubio is Latino. So he could also be seen as carrying the banner for "big tent" Republicans in his own way. This could be very important, at a time when Republican Latino support is disappearing fast. This will only be exacerbated by the confirmation battle later this summer over Sotomayor. Republican attacks on Obama's first Supreme Court nominee could drive Latino voters away from their party (even faster than they're already leaving, that is). The Washington insiders in the Republican Party who are pressuring Rubio to stand aside and let Crist have the nomination are also risking being seen as detrimental to Republican Latinos.

Republicans are already choosing sides in this power struggle. Jeb Bush, Jr. (the son of the former Florida governor) just announced his endorsement of Rubio. Cornyn has reportedly been facing some rather pointed questions from party insiders and righty bloggers.

Political parties always go through this sort of soul-searching when they've been soundly defeated in a few elections. Democrats have been through this cycle themselves. But the fight over the Republican primary in Florida is shaping up to be the main-ring event in the GOP's version of this intraparty struggle next year. Because Cornyn endorsed Crist so early on, and because of his position as chairman of the NRSC, this one fight could have national implications for Republicans. If Republican donors -- those deep pockets who fund the party's election efforts -- decide to give their money to independent conservative organizations rather than the Senate Republican committee, then it could mean less money for Republican senatorial candidates nationwide. Cornyn could solve this problem by resigning his chairmanship of the NRSC, who could then replace him with someone studiously neutral in the Florida race. But, short of that happening, this could shape up to be one of the most intense Republican skirmishes over the direction of their party, and could indeed have implications far beyond 2010.

Marco Rubio is seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, and (like Bobby Jindal and Michael Steele) one of the few who is a minority. He would seem to be a perfect person to carry the banner of "inclusiveness" to some in the party -- even more so because he is seen as a true-blue conservative. So it's going to be a battle of which idea of the "big tent" will prevail -- one that allows for less orthodox politicians who can win elections, or one that celebrates minorities who have passed the ideological purity test. No matter what the outcome, it's going to be a race to watch next year.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com