LAS VEGAS — Two Hispanic candidates — the first Cuban-Americans to ever run for president — have virtually no shot this week of winning a swing state that is home to a sizable Latino population.
Instead, they’re duking it out for a distant second-place finish here on Tuesday night, light-years behind a derisive candidate who has made alienating minorities a hallmark of his candidacy.
When Nevada state Republicans adopted a caucus-style process in 2008, giving the state's diverse electorate greater power in determining the next presidential nominee, the party was already in the early stages of a reckoning over how the state's demographics were shifting dramatically. They needed to catch up with diverse voters or kiss chances of winning the White House ever again goodbye.
Flash forward, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are now Republicans’ best chance of fulfilling the party’s prophecy of maintaining relevancy by becoming more inclusive toward minority voters. But that only has the potential of happening if they could only get within an arm’s length of the GOP front-runner — Donald Trump.
Even Rubio, who grew up here, will face significant obstacles in chipping away at Trump’s resounding lead. Rubio spent six of his formative years living in a working-class white and Latino neighborhood in Las Vegas. He often jokes along the campaign trail that he has more family living in Sin City than he does in Miami, where he serves as senator and raises his kids.
At a campaign rally here Sunday night, Rubio pointed to the cluster of his extended family members gazing up at him on the stage, all wide-eyed and bursting with pride, to share how they together embody the American Dream.
“My family started anew here in southern Nevada, a place of new beginnings, second chances and a new start,” Rubio said, telling of how his dad started out working as a bar-back at Sam’s Town, his mother a maid at Imperial Palace back when he was 8.
Rebounding off of a virtual tie in South Carolina, Rubio and Cruz are jockeying to position themselves as the clear alternative to Trump and the inevitable candidate to whittle the field down to a two-man race.
Though there has been a dearth of reliable polls to gauge the state of the race, and Nevada caucus-goers are notoriously difficult to track, the last poll leading into Tuesday's contest had Trump claiming 45 percent of likely Republican participants. Rubio and Cruz came neck-and-neck with 19 percent and 17 percent respectively.
For Cruz, the strategy boils down to momentum and electoral math. He’d bested Trump once already — he could do it again.
In campaign stops around Las Vegas suburbs on Sunday, the subject of the Cruz family’s new-immigrant roots was hardly a topic of discussion before the considerably older, whiter crowds that he turned out.
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“I don’t know if Ted needs to roll a cigar on his thigh or what to get people to notice that he’s also Cuban,” television pundit and radio host Glenn Beck joked at a Cruz event in Henderson.
Nevada’s Latino population grew by more than 80 percent from 2000 to 2010, triggering a massive uptick in the Hispanic share of the statewide vote. Latinos now make up 17 percent of Nevada’s eligible voters, one of the highest proportions in the country that’s only expected to grow.
What’s unique about the Silver State is that it has proved that Latino voters are not a monolith locked for Democrats. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, changed the game by becoming the first Latino elected as governor in 2010, handing the GOP complete control of the Nevada legislature with a number of ultra-conservatives riding on his coattails.
“I don’t think Hispanics have a natural tendency to go to the Democratic Party or the liberal mindset,” Ronnie Najarro, Nevada field director of the LIBRE Initiative, a Latino outreach organization founded by the Koch brothers, told MSNBC. “There just hasn’t been enough exposure to conservative values.”
Latinos turned out for the Democratic caucus at record rates on Saturday, claiming roughly 18 percent of the share of caucus-goers. The margin for Republicans will likely be far more slim.
For many Latinos, commitment to the immigrant community is more than just in a candidate’s last name or their ability to sell their stump speeches in two different languages.
Both Rubio and Cruz have tracked positions further and further to the right, vowing to end all of President Obama’s executive actions benefiting young immigrants and even suggesting restrictions to legal immigration. Their aggressive drive to cast the other as "pro-amnesty" will make it extremely difficult in warming up to Latinos who care deeply about deportation policies and the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
Whether Latinos will identify with the two Hispanic candidates also depends on their roots. Cubans, as are both Rubio's and Cruz's fathers, are allowed to apply for permanent residency one year after they set foot in U.S. soil. For Puerto Ricans, they're automatically U.S. citizens at birth.
That's a dramatically different life experience and set of values compared to the vast majority of the U.S. Latino population, in which immigrants from Mexico and Central America who have lived in the U.S. for years, even decades, have firm roots and families here, and yet currently no shot of earning legal status.
But it should not be understated just how remarkable it is that two Latinos are top contenders to lead the Republican Party in November. The unique and historic nature of their candidacy was captured last week when the two Hispanic candidates were bickering onstage at a Republican debate in South Carolina over who spoke Spanish better.
Instead of talking about immigration, Rubio is sticking to a message about family, growing up poor and living from paycheck to paycheck.
“Absolutely. I feel like he knows where we’re coming from because he lived where we lived," said Las Vegas resident Silvia Kalb, whose 16-year-old daughter Sophia pressed to her to attend Rubio's event on Sunday. "He truly knows diversity."