COLUMBIA, South Carolina – After his big win in the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz is one step closer to becoming the first Hispanic president in U.S. history. But that’s not how he wants to be known.
Cruz, whose father was born in Cuba, admits that his Spanish-speaking skills are “lousy.” He offers up only the occasional “muchisimas gracias” on the campaign trail.
His positions on immigration, including ending birthright citizenship and building a border wall, put him at odds with many Hispanic voters and advocacy groups. They accuse him of ignoring his heritage and issues that matter to many Latinos.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio shares some of the same conservative positions on immigration, some of which antagonize the Hispanic community — an ever-growing and increasingly powerful demographic in U.S. elections.
For both of the young senators, their heritage has not defined their supporter base or their political philosophies. But Cruz in particular has risked alienating many Hispanics by surrounding himself with conservatives such as Iowa Rep. Steve King, Cruz’s national campaign co-chairman, who has compared immigrants living in the country illegally to drug mules and livestock.
In appealing to conservatives in mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire, it wasn’t necessary for Cruz or Rubio to appeal directly to Hispanic voters. But that will change quickly in Nevada on Feb. 23, where Latinos make up 28 percent of the population.
Cruz’s top strategist, Jason Johnson, says the Texas senator can win the general election by capturing just 30 percent of Hispanics — little more than the 27 percent Mitt Romney got in his 2012 White House bid.
“In the Democratic Party, you’re the Hispanic guy, you’re the African-American guy, you’re whatever your little bloc is, you’re pigeonholed and simply a quota representative,” Cruz told reporters in a November interview. “One of the reasons I’m a Republican is because we treat people as individuals … When I ran for Senate in Texas I didn’t run as: ‘Vote for the Hispanic guy.’”
Cruz said he ran for the Senate as the strongest conservative and “that’s exactly how I’m running for president.”
As a teenager in Cuba, his father Rafael Cruz joined an uprising against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, during which time he was arrested and beaten. In 1957 — two years before Fidel Castro took power — the elder Cruz fled Cuba for the United States, a story that Cruz often recounts on the campaign trail.
Cruz was born Rafael Edward Cruz in 1970. He spoke no Spanish at home and his parents spoke only English around him.
Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Cruz “doesn’t fundamentally understand the Latino community.”
Cruz and Rubio “have turned their back on our community” and are catering to the anti-immigrant fringe of the Republican Party, said Dolores Huerta, a longtime civil rights activist.
“They really don’t share the values of the Latino community even though they happen to be Latinos themselves,” Huerta said.
BY SCOTT BAUER (The Associated Press)