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New GOP campaign is aimed at Hispanics

'Economic freedom' message seen as appealing to crucial Latino vote

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Isaac Brekken/AP

Eyeing potentially restive Hispanic voters in 2012, GOP operative Dan Garza is launching an “economic freedom” message campaign aimed at Latinos, and hiring big name business and religious figures to help in key states.

Garza told iWatch News he hopes to raise $1 million by the end of 2011 for his campaign, dubbed the Libre Initiative, which will tout such core Republican values as less economic and business regulation. Among the big name donors he has approached are “representatives of the Koch family,” said Garza, who worked in the White House’s public liaison office under George W. Bush and then did stints with Spanish language media. Garza declined to say, however, whether Koch interests have committed any funds yet to the initiative, a 501 (c) (4) which is permitted to keep donors names secret.

Two GOP operatives familiar with the initiative say Garza told them he has already secured commitments for about $1 million — including funds from Koch family interests.

Charles and David Koch control the nation’s second largest privately owned company, Kansas-based Koch Industries, with big interests in oil and gas, paper products and derivatives trading.  The two Koch brothers are each reportedly worth about $21 billion. Over the last few decades the brothers and Koch family foundations have been financial angels for numerous conservative think tanks, grassroots groups and politicians.

A spokesman for Koch declined to comment.

Garza’s fledgling effort is but the latest example of GOP drives to win the hearts, minds and votes of the fast- growing Hispanic community — efforts that in the 2012 elections could be crucial in swing states like Florida and New Mexico.

On Friday and Saturday in Albuquerque,  the Hispanic Leadership Network,  run by Jennifer Korn, another alumnus of the Bush public liaison office, is hosting a conference featuring several prominent Latino officials as part of its drive to build a Hispanic grassroots political network. Korn’s group was created earlier this year by the Republican-affiliated American Action Network; the network is chaired by former Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican.

And this summer the Republican State Leadership Committee — chaired by GOP super-consultant Ed Gillespie —announced plans to  spend $3 million in 2012 recruiting 100 Hispanics to run for state legislative office and boosting GOP support for women and other minority candidates.

 “Voters would like to have someone they can identify with,” Gillespie told iWatch News, noting that currently there are only 39 Republican Hispanic state legislators nationwide. “The immediate perspective is to increase our share of the Hispanic vote in 2012, which would be significant,” Gillespie said.

Hispanics are the nation’s fastest growing minority: there are some 50 million living in the U.S., about 16 percent of the nation’s population,  according to the 2010 census.  One in five voters in 2012 is expected to be Hispanic in states such as California, New Mexico and Texas.

The GOP’s stepped up drive to woo Hispanics may be complicated by the get-tough stances of many leading Republicans on the issue of illegal immigration — and the sometimes harsh rhetoric of conservative Tea Party activists.

But Republicans see new opportunities in part because of the impact of the recession. Unemployment in Hispanic communities has been running at more than 11 percent,  compared to the latest national figure of 9.1 percent.

 In 2008, the Obama campaign reportedly spent about $20 million on a robust Hispanic outreach effort, and was rewarded with 67 percent of the Hispanic vote. The President’s overall job approval rating dropped to 48 percent among Hispanics, according to a recent Gallup survey, down from 60 percent in January. The drop in support is usually attributed to the impact of the struggling economy and disappointments about the failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

Democrats know they can’t take the Hispanic vote for granted. In mid-August, the White House hosted 160 Hispanic leaders for two days of meetings that included access to cabinet officials and key presidential advisers, according to The Washington Post. The get-together seems to be part of a stepped-up drive by the White House and President Obama’s reelection campaign to revive Hispanic enthusiasm before next fall. .

“I think both sides are going to spend a lot of money to win the Hispanic vote,” said Jose Mallea, the campaign manager in 2010 for GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

Mallea, who worked for White House chief of staff Andy Card while Garza was at the public liaison office, said he “offered to help Dan” with the Libre Initiative . “I think it’s a great idea. He told me he had funding,” Mallea said.

The gist of the Libre Initiative,  based in Mission Texas, is simple: “By increasing awareness of economic freedom, people will vote accordingly,” said Garza. “Our effort is to expand the conversation from just immigration to issues of the economy, jobs and small business.”

To achieve these goals, the Initiative has hired Michael Barrera, the former president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and John Mendez, a Southern California evangelical minister. Garza, who left the White House in 2006, also boasts media skills that could help: he did a stint in 2008 as host of Agenda Washington, a Sunday morning show on Univision, the Spanish language cable network. Garza previously was president of Hispanic and Poder magazines.

The Colorado-based Barrera will focus on reaching out to small business and entrepreneurs in the Southwest, while Mendez will be doing “outreach to mostly faith-based groups,” Garza said.

Garza said the initiative plans to target three big states California, Florida and Texas, plus the Southwest and Northeast. To spread its message widely, the initiative will “align with organizations that support economic freedom,” such as the American Enterprise Institute, CATO and the Mercatus Center, Garza said. “We want to be a partner and a resource.”

Other groups are taking different tacks.

Korn of the Hispanic Leadership Network, told iWatch News that this weekend’s conference in Albuquerque will explore a range of issues affecting Hispanics,  including jobs, housing and education. The meeting will feature New Mexico’s Governor Susana Martinez, former attorney general Alberto Gonzales — whose Justice Department Korn once worked for—and several other Hispanic political figures.

Korn, who was national Hispanic director for President Bush’s reelection drive in 2004, said her group has a budget of about $1 million annually, and plans to hold two conferences a year to help build a grassroots network that will include Hispanic leaders who want to be media surrogates. The group hosted a similar get-together in Florida early this year  —  which drew former Gov. Jeb Bush —  and plans another one in the Sunshine State in early 2012.

Coleman of the American Action Network told iWatch News that the critical issue for the Hispanic network group is how best to “mobilize voters on the ground. It’s getting email and identifying organizations. It ranks as one of our top priorities.”

The Republican State Leadership Committee’s drive to recruit 100 Hispanic candidates for state legislative offices is “the first step on the escalator” to higher office, said Gillespie, noting that Sen. Rubio came out of the Florida legislature. “The Southwest,” Gillespie said, “is an area where we have a real opportunity and ready candidates.”

American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-linked group that Gillespie helped launch, also is trying to make inroads in the Hispanic vote in 2012. This summer, the group’s affiliate,  Crossroads GPS,  spent about $158,000 on Spanish language television spots hammering President Obama’s economic policies. The ads ran in nine markets with substantial Latino populations, including Denver, El Paso, Miami and Reno.

Crossroads declined to say what they’d spend next year on ads aimed at Hispanic voters. But Steven Law, the group’s president, said that “Hispanics are a huge priority for us… Hispanics are also becoming a crucial voting bloc in a number of states, and we need to be communicating with them on our issues.”