SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA—On a sweltering summer afternoon in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, a small group of local Latino business owners and their families gathered in an upscale venue called Venue. Sitting at half-empty tables amidst faux western decor and flanked by banners reading “LIMITED GOVERNMENT, UNLIMITED OPPORTUNITIES,” they heard from a group of panelists and experts on the challenges of starting a family business.
Nowhere in the packets handed out to the attendees or in the presentations was it disclosed that the host organization, LIBRE, is a pet project of the Koch Brothers—the billionaire fossil fuel magnates currently bankrolling Republican candidates and conservative initiatives around the country. But hints were there: speakers heaping praise on Walmart as a successful “family business,” a video backed by dramatic music saying those who take welfare have “condemned their children to a life of mediocrity and subsistence,” a flyer listing the ways the Obama Administration has made life worse for Latinos over the past five years.
LIBRE’s executives insisted to ThinkProgress that since its founding in 2011 the group has been non-partisan. “We want to help Hispanics be prosperous,” said National Coalitions Director Michael Barrera, “and teach them the best way to be prosperous is through the free market.”
President Obama won about 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008 and 71 percent in 2012. If all eligible Hispanic voters in Arizona had turned out in this past election, the state would have gone for Obama and Senate candidate Richard Carmona. Recent studies show most Latinos in every age group identify with the Democratic Party. The Kochs’ initiative is one of a flurry of conservative and Republican groups that have emerged to try to change that.
While LIBRE may not tell their members who to vote for, they have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into telling them in English and Spanish who not to vote for—specifically, four Democratic House members who support the Affordable Care Act.
Barrera is hoping an anti-Obamacare message will resonate with Latinos, telling ThinkProgress that panelists at events he has organized around the country have told him they’ve chosen to lay workers off rather than provide them with health care. He added that the Medicaid expansion was “not warranted,” and when asked how those with low-income should be covered, he answered simply: “Making government bigger is not the way,” and assured ThinkProgress: “You’ve got to realize, a lot of people who aren’t covered chose not to be covered.”
“They’re just not seeing the benefit [of health care reform],” Barrera said of Latino Americans. “And actually, support for it among Hispanics has dropped considerably.”
The data, however, suggests otherwise. A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the Affordable Care Act has decreased the uninsured rate for working-age Latinos from 36 to 23 percent, with young and low-income people benefiting the most. And in states that chose to expand Medicaid, the uninsured rate for Latinos decreased from 35 to 17 percent. The study’s authors wrote: “The full implementation of the ACA…has the potential to be one of the most important developments affecting Latino health care.”
Barrera is correct, though, that the support for Obamacare has declined. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that just 42 percent of Latinos currently have a favorable view of the law, down from a high of 73 percent in 2010. But they remain much more supportive than non-Hispanic white Americans, only 29 percent of whom approve of the law. Furthermore, social scientists Matt Barreto and Gary Segura have found that the souring view of the law isn’t because it goes too far, as LIBRE claims, but because it doesn’t go far enough. 67 percent of Latinos they surveyed believed everyone should be eligible for coverage regardless of citizenship status, while 74 percent favored a public option.
Opposition to the President’s health care reform may be LIBRE’s signature issue, but it isn’t their only one. John Mendez, an Evangelical minister who serves as LIBRE’s Director of Faith Initiatives told ThinkProgress that it’s just one piece of their free market message. His job, he explained, is to put that message “in a theological context.”
“In Scripture it tells us of dependency on God, not dependency on Man,” Mendez said. “To whom you’re dependent on is who you belong to. So you should not be dependent on government. When government starts dictating to you how to spend your money, then our freedoms are starting to be chipped away at.”
When ThinkProgress asked how that philosophy squares with Biblical teachings on lifting up the poor and needy, Mendez answered: “Jesus said to always help the poor, so we always give a helping hand. Some people at one time or another need help, but that’s just for a season. We’re not advocating for those who have unfortunately made welfare a career.”
How have Latino audiences received this message? “There’s a lot of questions. It’s not always an easy subject for some of the first generation to comprehend,” Mendez said. “Much of the time the response we get is, ‘We didn’t know this!’ So we educate them on that, and you can almost see it on their faces when the lights go on.”
Mendez attributes the penchant for voting blue to Latinos being “not just uninformed, but misinformed” about both the Republican and Democratic Party, and lamented what he sees as their tendency to vote based on loyalty. “Whatever Mom was and Grandpa was I guess I’m going to be. Or, ‘He’s a Hispanic candidate? I’m going to vote for him’ without knowing the positions or values.”
As Latinos “realize how their values are aligned,” he predicted, their voting patterns will begin to shift.
As a 501(c)(4) non-profit, LIBRE is legally able to keep its donors’ identities secret. But founder Daniel Garza, a former staffer in George W. Bush’s Public Liaison Office, has disclosed that “representatives of the Koch family” are among the initiative’s main supporters.
Latino leaders and prominent Hispanic media outlets have characterized LIBRE as a “front group” designed to advance same agenda the Koch Brothers pursue through the other groups they fund: discouraging participation in the new health care marketplace, rolling back environmental regulations and opposing equal pay for women.
LIBRE operates around the country, but has focused its efforts most heavily, in the lead-up to the November midterms, in important swing states with sizable Latino populations: Texas, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona. Their events often involve free social services, from tax preparation to English classes to a school supplies giveaway.
LIBRE is far from the first conservative initiative specifically aimed at Latinos. After Republicans failed to win back the White House in 2012, they commissioned an “autopsy report” that found, among other things, that “many minorities” believe “Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.” The changing demographics of the US, they acknowledged, tends to favor Democrats, and they warned that if the party fails to aggressively recruit Latino voters, they will be disadvantaged in all future elections.
But attempts to follow this advice have had mixed results. Groups like the Hispanic Leadership Network and the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles have sprung up over the past few years, but the great Republican re-brand has been hampered by a series of embarrassing, offensive incidents.
But the issue goes beyond isolated slip-ups. Key policy differences remain. Social scientists Barreto and Segura found, based on years of polling, that “Latinos prefer more government engagement in solving society’s challenges, not less. Despite their embrace of values based in self-reliance, they see a critical and decisive role for government in the lives of individuals. The result is a supermajority that votes Democrat.”
How this will square with LIBRE’s message of shrinking government and deregulating the economy remains to be seen.