KANSAS CITY, Missouri – How much damage has Donald Trump done to the Republican Party’s effort to win back Hispanics in 2016? At the annual conference here of the National Council of La Raza, one of the nation’s largest Hispanic solidarity groups, almost everyone who took the stage Monday, from the comic relief to the corporate sponsors, felt the need to condemn Trump’s incendiary comments on Mexican immigrants.
There was no sign that any one of the thousands who attended the conference here had anything but disgust for Trump’s remarks and disappointment or worse for his fellow Republicans for not condemning Trump sooner and stronger.
It didn’t help that only Democrats responded to NCLR’s invitation to attend the conference, which went to all presidential candidates. Though the group has long been seen as friendly to Democrats.
Republican leaders have spent two years and millions of dollars trying to repair relations with the Hispanic community, which not too long ago gave George W. Bush over 44% of their vote.
Climbing back to in the 40s was always going to be a tall order, but Trump’s comments – and the fact that he’s only moved up in the polls since making them – has only made that work harder. While it’s still a long way until November 2016, and much could change, Democrats here suggested Mitt Romney’s 27% Latino vote share may be a high watermark.
“Do I believe it’s possible for them to outperform 27%? Yes. Does that look probable right now? No,” Julian Castro, the secretary of Housing and Urban development and a likely Democratic vice presidential pick told msnbc.
For Democrats eager to drive up their margins with Latinos in 2016 and encourage the community to get to the polls, Trump’s comments have played directly into their hands. The party’s message: You can’t trust Republicans to give you immigration reform if they can’t even handle Trump.
“How is Jeb Bush going to stand up to the Republicans in Congress for comprehensive immigration reform if he won’t even stand up to a clown like Donald Trump?” asked Castro. “How is Marco Rubio going to do that if he won’t stand up to Donald Trump? That ought to teach folks a lot about their approach going into 2016.”
No one was more eager to make this point than Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and her fellow candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. The three have fought internecine skirmishes on immigration reform this year, but were happily united here Monday against Trump.
“I have just one word for Mr. Trump: Basta! Enough!” Clinton said to cheers as she addressed the crowd. Then she set her sights on the rest.
“To all the other Republicans running for president, why did it take weeks to speak out? You are normally such a talkative bunch. Suddenly you have nothing to say,” Clinton said. “The sad truth is that even as some of the other candidates now condemn those words, if you look at many of their policies, it’s hard to tell the difference.”
She told the Latino audience that they can’t trust even candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who are supportive of immigration reform. “When they talk about legal status, that’s code for second-class status. When they talk about rolling back the president’s executive actions, that’s code for tearing families apart,” she said. “Do they really think they can get away with that kind of double speak?”
All three Democratic candidates worked to out-do each other rhetorically when it came to bashing Trump.
Democratic presidential Martin O’Malley told msnbc that “[Abraham] Lincoln would be very ashamed” of the Republican Party for not uniformly condemning Trump.
In his prepared remarks, O’Malley told the audience, “I know you share my disgust with the comments Donald Trump recently made.”
But his real target was the rest of the party. “The real problem isn’t that the Republicans have such a hate-spewing character running for president – the problem is that it’s so hard to tell him apart from the other candidates,” O’Malley said.
Earlier in the day, Sen. Bernie Sanders said Trump belongs in the long history of American racists.
“Racism has plagued the United States since its inception,” he said. “We are making progress in this country and there will be no turning back. And let me be very clear in saying that no one, not Donald Trump, not anyone else will be successful in dividing us based on race or on our country of origin.”
Asked by reporters afterwards if Trump was a racist, Sanders said he didn’t want to “psycho-analyze” the former reality TV star, but said “a major candidate for president of the United States to be throwing slurs at one group of people because of the country that they came from if totally unacceptable, period.”
Trump has so far refused to back down and in fact seems to be getting rewarded by Republicans for his incendiary remarks.
A new Monmouth University poll out Monday shows Trump’s favorability rating doubled among Republican since June while his support climbed from 2% to 13%, putting him just behind Jeb Bush.
How long his surge will last – and the accompanying damage to the GOP brand – remains to be seen.
This article has been updated throughout the day to include quotes from new speakers.