Opinion: The Spanish Republicans

On ‘At-Large’ this weekend, Al Sharpton, (a chronically under-rated civil rights leader and old friend), and I pondered an interesting question: should people who consider themselves progressive applaud the election of minorities who are conservatives? It came up when Reverend Al and I were talking about the sweeping victories in the mid-term elections of Hispanic Republicans, most prominently Florida’s Senator-elect Marco Rubio.

Right now, the 39-year old Cuban-American is the Latino golden boy; he’s standing astride the big stage after first driving Florida’s popular governor Charlie Crist from the GOP before the Senate primary, and then crushing Charlie and the affable, but ineffective Democrat, Miami-area congressman Kendrick Meek in the general election.

Aside from his early and powerful Tea Party support, Marco Rubio’s victory is not unprecedented in the Sunshine State. He is replacing another Cuban American, Senator Mel Martínez who was also reliably conservative, consistently anti-Castro, and who retired a year ago.

But unlike stern Senator Martínez, who had an accountant’s charisma, Rubio has the fire of a ready-for-prime-time telenovela star. Articulate, sharp and battle-tested by the bitter, bruising, high profile election process, Rubio is America's first Latino to have a realistic near-term shot at national office. He is a quality politician who out-classed, out-charmed, out-cooled and out-prepared his rivals, while keeping a largely hostile national press corps on its heels. Most fair-minded observers will soon grasp that he is an attractive candidate for the GOP nomination as vice president, maybe as soon as 2012.

Other winning Hispanic Republicans include the nation’s first-ever Latina governor, New Mexico’s Susana Martínez, and Nevada’s first Latino governor, Brian Sandoval. The history-making honor roll also includes Raul Labrador, Idaho’s first Latino congressman, and Jamie Herrera, Washington State’s first Latina congresswoman.

Seeming to minimize their electoral achievement, Reverend Al was quick to point out on the air that what characterized these newly elected Latino congress-people was that they were elected from non-Latino dominant, heavily GOP districts. In other words, if some other candidate, say a non-Latino Republican had run instead, he or she would probably have also surfed the Republican tsunami to easy victory. Reverend Al further pointed out that neither of the governors, Martínez and Sandoval received a majority of the Hispanic vote; in fact Sandoval won barely a third of Nevada's Hispanic vote according to the Pew Research Center, the best pollsters in the business of tracking Latino trends.

“So does that make them Uncle Toms?” I asked with my customary frankness. “No it doesn’t make them Uncle Toms,” answered Al without hesitation. “It makes them Republicans.”

Putting aside any implication of ethnic window-dressing, let’s examine Al’s basic premise that newly elected Latino Republicans are, to bastardize an anagram, LINO’s (Latinos In Name Only). After all, didn’t Rubio disappoint us by changing his original position from measured support to mild opposition to comprehensive immigration reform; not to mention changing his position on the compassionate and super-reasonable DREAM Act, and most upsetting, on Arizona’s draconian anti-immigration law (SB1070), morphing from opposition to support of that dreadful law as his campaign progressed?

Yes. Yes. And mostly yes.

While Rubio won the Hispanic vote, aside from Florida’s reliably Republican Cuban-Americans, who voted overwhelmingly for their native grandson, he didn’t fare nearly as well among the state’s more liberal non-Cuban Latinos, like the Puerto Ricans who dominate demographically in the Orlando area.

Further, looking beyond Rubio’s victory liberals can take solace in the fact that just as the Latino vote elected Barack Obama in 2008, the group saved the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate in 2010. Specifically, Senators Bennett of Colorado, Reid of Nevada and Boxer of California would be looking for work as pundits on MSNBC, but for their two-to-one majority Latino votes.

Still, Rubio has potential cross over appeal that I believe will grow going forward. He wears well. More substantively, he will hopefully re-assume the centrist immigration position he held before his embrace by the Tea Parties. In any case, Hispanics will have to get used to the fact that while 64% voted for Democrats this past election, that means one in three did not.

Led by the Cubans (whom I have argued to some controversy became Republicans early, largely because of their sweetheart immigration deal), more will move to the right politically. To generalize, Hispanic culture is reflexively conservative; with heavy emphasis on family, care of the elderly, church (right to life), country, hard work and just rewards. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “they are Republicans; they just don’t know it yet.”

If the GOP would just abandon, or more realistically moderate its currently noxious immigration politics, and policies like the English-only nonsense and efforts to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment, many Latinos would be up for grabs in terms of party affiliation.

In other words, if Senator Marco Rubio opts for the big tent politics of Karl Rove, George W. Bush (circa 2004), John McCain (circa 2006) and the late Jack Kemp, he could accelerate the process, expanding his party's majority on his way to the vice-presidency. Now that would be historic.

Geraldo Rivera is a columnist for Fox News Latino.