DES MOINES – After months of bus tours rolling across Iowa and millions of dollars spent in a massive advertising operation, most GOP candidates have failed to reach out to Hispanic voters in the state, say Iowa business owners and experts.
The only candidate to visit a row of Mexican restaurants and grocery stores just a few blocks east of the state capitol was former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In early December, the candidate stopped in at Raquel’s Pastry Shop and left a stack of flyers, written in Spanish, next to a rack of Latino newspapers.
In Iowa, the Hispanic population has almost doubled over the last decade and is now at 5 percent, or about 150,000 people. The growth is mainly concentrated in Iowa counties were Mexican and Central American immigrants fill jobs in meat-packing and poultry plants, factories and farms.
“We want a candidate that will look at the issues that need to be resolved, and honestly, that’s been hard to see so far,” said Enrique Velasco, who runs a marketing company in Winterset, 45 minutes southwest of Des Moines.
“Gingrich has personally called me to find out what are the issues concerning Hispanics, but no other candidate has,” he said. “It’s like we don’t show on their radar screen.”
Velasco moved to Des Moines from Colombia as a teenager three decades ago. He said jobs and immigration reform are the most pressing issues for his family and friends.
Juan Pina, a self-identified Democrat-turned-Republican who moved to Des Moines from Los Angeles five years ago, also got a call from Gingrich but said it’s hard to believe the other candidates haven’t done so. He owns a furniture manufacturing company where about a dozen Hispanics work.
For Chad Thomas, mayor of West Liberty, the first Hispanic-majority city in Iowa, the lack of attention comes from the assumption that Latino voters aren’t seen as significant enough for Republicans on caucus day.
“I would expect that once the Republican candidate is selected and the general election campaign has started, then there will start to be some level of direct and public outreach to Hispanic voters,” said Thomas, who was elected mayor in 2009.
West Liberty, which is about 37 percent Hispanic, is in a Republican-leaning part of the state but didn’t see any GOP candidates before caucus day, Thomas added.
“If any of the candidates were serious about engaging the Hispanic population, West Liberty would be an obvious campaign stop and yet we have not had a single candidate – or even a surrogate – stop into our community.”
Those scorned feelings are shared with Lena Robison, the founder and president of Latinos Unidos for Iowa, a non-profit community support group.
“I personally have been contacted by one of the GOP candidates – Gingrich – but as soon as they found out I was a registered Democrat, they didn’t want to even sway me,” she said.
Robison said a few of her Hispanic friends had been contacted by Gingrich’s campaign, but the language barrier was an issue.
“If they can’t speak English or the caller learns the individual can’t vote, they hang up,” she said. “This makes a statement that they have no vision for a future that include Latinos.”
Ignoring the fastest-growing voting bloc in the nation could cost candidates later when the campaign moves to states with larger Latino populations, experts say.
“As the primary season progresses and the candidates put more effort into states with a larger Hispanic population, we will likely see more attention paid to Hispanic issues,” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
Hagle believes Latinos will be able to determine for themselves the candidate who better resonates with them on a national level.