Facing the growing threat of Donald Trump capturing their party’s presidential nomination, Hispanic Republicans are hitting the panic button and taking a unified stand against the bombastic billionaire.
On the eve of the third GOP debate, about two dozen Hispanic leaders emerged Tuesday from a closed-door meeting in Colorado with a stark warning for Republicans: They can kiss the Hispanic vote, and their chances of winning the White House, goodbye if Mr. Trump is nominated.
“Our message to Trump is, ‘You’re done,’ ” said Alfonso Aguilar, director of American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership and former official in the administration of President George W. Bush. “‘We think if you are the candidate that Republicans will lose the White House.’”
Mr. Aguilar and the other Hispanic leaders said they plan to monitor the rest of the GOP field over the coming weeks and months, and could decide to write off others based on their immigration views.
“We’re going to hold you accountable,” he warned.
The Trump campaign declined the chance to comment on the meeting.
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Mr. Trump, meanwhile, is set to once again take center stage in the GOP presidential debate that is set to kick off at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Hosted by CNBC, the prime-time showdown is being limited to 10 participants, based on national polls, and follows a 6 p.m. undercard event that is scheduled to feature four of the lower-tier candidates.
Mr. Trump has downplayed the idea that he has fallen out of favor with Hispanics, though an AP-GFK poll this week showed 72 percent of Latinos say they view him unfavorably, compared to 11 percent who see him in a positive light.
Given Colorado’s deep pool of Hispanic voters, Wednesday’s debate could focus more on immigration, which polls show — and activist say — is a threshold issue for many Hispanics who won’t even look at a candidate that comes out against robust legalization.
“Foolishly, some candidates think they don’t need the Hispanic vote in the primary, so they pander to the voters with extreme views instead of just showing us who they are,” said Rosario Marin, former treasurer of the United States under President George W. Bush, who attended the meeting. “Heed our warning: ‘Don’t expect us to come to your side during the general election. If you are not with us now, we will not be with you then.’”
The Hispanic “summit” Tuesday was billed as the first of its kind, and attendees said they’ve scheduled another meeting a day before the Dec. 15 debate in Nevada, which is also home to many Latino voters.
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The group also vowed to highlight how Mr. Obama broke his promise to push an immigration fight during his first year in office and how Hillary Rodham Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic nominee, said last year that illegal immigrant children surging across the U.S.-Mexico border should be sent home.
Republicans have wrestled over the issue of immigration since Mitt Romney lost Latino voters by a 71 percent-to-27 percent margin in the 2012 election after he pledged to rely on “self-deportation” to reduce the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States.
The pledge contrasted with the executive amnesty that Mr. Obama granted to young illegal immigrants, known as Dreamers, roughly six months out from the general election.
Mr. Obama won the Latino vote by an even wider margin — 75 percent to 23 percent — in Colorado, which has produced Republicans with diverse opinion on the issue, including former Rep. Tom Tancredo, a staunch “amnesty” opponent, and Sen. Cory Gardner, who supports a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants and expanding guest worker programs.
This year the issue has divided the GOP field, with former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both Florida Republicans, Carly Fiorina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich being among the candidates that have backed some sort of a path to legal status for illegal immigrants.
Others, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have vowed to oppose “amnesty” and have supported expanding legal immigration.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has focused on the enforcement side of the debate and signaled he is open to reducing legal immigration.
In August he rolled out a six-page plan that called for more border fencing, deporting all illegal immigrants and ending the policy granting automatic citizenship to almost everyone born in the U.S., including to illegal immigrant mothers.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, applauded the Trump plan, saying at the time that it “re-establishes the principle that America’s immigration laws should serve the interest of its own citizens.
“For too long, ‘immigration reform’ plans in Washington have served the special interests at the expense of working Americans,” Mr. Session said. “By contrast, this plan puts the needs of working Americans foremost and develops an effective strategy for improving their wages and job prospects.”
For the Hispanic leaders that gathered in Boulder Tuesday, the proposal was yet another troubling sign for Mr. Trump, who had caught their attention over the summer when he said that Mexico officials were sending drug smugglers, “rapists and some, I assume good people” into the United States.
Mr. Trump has pledged to support whoever wins the GOP nomination. Hispanic leaders, however, said they won’t support Mr. Trump.
“We still have hope that we can help elect a Republican candidate, but we are 100 percent united behind the fact that Mr. Trump is not our guy,” Massey Villarreal, former head of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said before the meeting.
“We are not going to shy away from the fact that if Mr. Trump is the nominee, we will encourage Latinos to write their own candidate in,” he said.
Mr. Aguilar said he would “leave the ballot blank,” and also said that it would be “naive” to suggest that Mr. Trump is the only GOP candidate who could jeopardize the party’s chances of winning over more Hispanics.
“Trump is in a league of his own, but there is a concern about the way Cruz has been handling the issue,” he said.
Mr. Aguilar said Mr. Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant father, has sent the wrong message by cozying up to Mr. Trump, while also coming out against birthright citizenship and refusing to spell out his plans for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country.
Others said they are willing to cut Mr. Cruz some more slack.
The Cruz camp did not respond to an email seeking comment.