Despite a history of missteps, Newt Gingrich is trying to bring Latinos into the Republican fold by doing interviews on Univision, taking language lessons and even Tweeting in Spanish. But will Hispanic voters see it as progress or pandering?
The road to winning back Latino voters to the GOP hasn't been an easy one for Newt Gingrich.
One day he's Twittering that Sonia Sotomayor's a “Latin woman racist,” (the next he's walking it back). One day he's calling Spanish the language of the “ghetto,” the next he's apologizing on YouTube en Espanol.
Gingrich's stumbles may attract unwanted headlines, but at a time when strategists are sounding the alarm about the Republican Party's dangerously weak support in the Hispanic community (not to mention every other community), the former Speaker of the House is engaged in a serious effort to court the Latino vote.
Last week he appeared on Spanish-language network Univision to talk about Sonia Sotomayor, immigration, and Honduran politics. You might have heard about it on Gingrich's Spanish-language Twitter feed, which included a link to the video, embedded on his Spanish-language Web site.
Last week he appeared on Spanish-language network Univision to talk about Sonia Sotomayor, immigration, and Honduran politics, in an interview with newscaster Jorge Ramos. You might have heard about it on Gingrich's Spanish-language Twitter feed, launched only days earlier, which included a link to the video, embedded on his Spanish-language Web site. And if you missed it, you could always pick up a Spanish edition of one of his books to learn more about his politics.
Gingrich took Spanish lessons with a tutor for several years and, according to spokesman Rick Tyler, still regularly practices with his Spanish-speaking staff, which includes a Hispanic media director, Sylvia F. Garcia. Gingrich also reads articles in Spanish and trades office emails in the language as well.
There's no denying that the effort is there, but is Gingrich's Spanish-language outreach effective politics?
“Ultimately for a candidate who succeeds with Hispanic support, it's not because you learn to speak the language,” said former Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-TX), who used to brief Republican lawmakers during the Gingrich era on how to communicate with Latino voters.
According to Bonilla, politicians often make the mistake of transparently pandering to Hispanic voters with superficial appeals, such as Spanish-language literature. True inroads, by contrast, require politicians to actively engage local communities and institutions the same way they would with any other constituency. He added that Gingrich's bigger strength was his “very sincere feeling in his heart about wanting to routinely include Hispanics at the table,” rather than his language skills.
A Republican strategist, Leslie Sanchez, said that she saw value in Gingrich's emphasis on using Spanish, even if it was only symbolic.
“I think it can be tremendously effective to the extent that it shows individual leaders within the Republican Party are committed to communicating with Spanish-language speakers,” Sanchez said. She added that while the national party may be unpopular among Hispanic voters, individual candidates could boost their chances in elections by demonstrating respect with such tactics.
As for Gingrich, Sanchez said he had long been at the top of the GOP class in his outreach operations.
“I worked on the Hill when he was there as Speaker of the House and he hired a Spanish-language spokesperson,” Sanchez said. “She would invite in people to talk everything from hurricane relief in Latin America to economic empowerment. She was making a very strong effort to communicate what the party was doing and what the legislature was doing.”
Given the tense relationship between the Republican Party and Latinos, Gingrich's efforts have also met their fair share of derision from his critics. After he began his Spanish Twitter feed, for example, the site Think Progress labeled him a hypocrite for simultaneously opposing bilingual education. Gingrich has contended that his support for English-immersion classes and for making English the nation's official language are unrelated to his Spanish use.
And those who imagine that Gingrich's embrace of all things Spanish might be motivated more by cynical numbers-crunching than heartfelt empathy for the Latino experience are not without evidence.
"I think Newt Gingrich has a long record and history of votes that can be judged upon, in terms of policies that actually matter to the Hispanic community," the Vice President of Hispanic Programs for the National Democratic Network, Andres Ramirez, told the Daily Beast. "We've seen in the last couple of election cycles that simply speaking in Spanish isn't enough. You have to be competent on the issues that matter."
Gingrich's policy views on issues like immigration have undergone a journey that's mirrored the GOP's experience at the polls. While he placed little emphasis on immigration in the 1994 midterm elections that brought the GOP to power, the success of Proposition 187, which banned social services for illegal immigrants in California, spawned similar efforts in the House, including one bill backed by Gingrich that would have allowed states to bar children of illegal immigrants from attending public schools.
After Republicans flamed out with Hispanics in the 1996 elections as a result of the party’s newly nativist tack, Gingrich quickly changed up his approach. He hired staff to direct Hispanic outreach and backed legislation making it more difficult to deport Central American immigrants while also giving in to Democratic demands to ease some restrictions on social services for illegal immigrants.
"The most important single development over the next 20 years is to have a Republican Party that actively includes the Hispanic community, understands their concerns and issues and helps solve them," Gingrich said in an interview with USA Today in 2002.
Of course, whether anyone will listen to Gingrich's appeal is another story. His Spanish-language Twitter feed has a grand total of 69 followers. His English-language feed? Over 695,129.
This piece has been updated to include an additional interview.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.