The New York Times
November 25, 2015
By Ashley Parker
MIAMI — The crowd that lined up around a megachurch here last week — largely Hispanic and mostly poor — came for the Saturday services, but also for the free flu shots that were being offered in the church, and for the Thanksgiving turkeys being given away just outside.
But before they received their turkeys, those in line were asked to answer a few questions: Were they more likely to vote for a Republican or a Democrat in the 2016 presidential election? And did they feel that the government should increase or decrease federal spending in order to improve the economy?
Volunteers, holding clipboards and speaking mainly in Spanish, collected the names, telephone numbers and email addresses of everyone who showed up.
The approach — a free Thanksgiving turkey in exchange for some personal information — captures the mission of Libre, a multimillion-dollar effort financed by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers and devoted to winning over Hispanics, with the message that economic freedom and smaller-government principles will yield opportunity and prosperity.
With an increased emphasis on Hispanic outreach, the Kochs are hoping to step in where the Republican Party has, by many accounts, failed. After the 2012 presidential election — Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote — a report by the party concluded that it would have to make significant inroads with Hispanic voters to retake the White House.
The Republican Party, however, has made a concerted effort to improve its performance, placing Hispanic outreach staff members in communities more than a year before the 2014 elections and keeping them there for 2016. But Democrats still won the Latino vote in congressional races nationally 62 percent to 36 percent, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
“They’ve been just terribly disappointing,” said Daniel Garza, 47, the son of migrant farm workers who is now the executive director of the Libre Initiative, during an interview at a candidates forum with Jeb Bush last month in Las Vegas. “I wish they would ramp up their efforts and do a lot more on the policy side, but again we’re not going to wait around for them.”
The group declined to say precisely how much it would spend during this election cycle, but the sum is expected to surpass the $9 million it spent from 2013 to 2014. Representatives for the Koch brothers also declined to make them available for comment.
Such efforts could prove especially important to Republicans in a presidential election cycle in which immigration has returned as a wedge issue and the rhetoric from many Republican candidates has become increasingly vitriolic.
Libre, reflecting the Koch brothers’ views, supports a broad overhaul of the immigration system, including a path to citizenship. It waged a campaign in support of the Senate’s 2013 immigration effort, including airing in excess of $1 million in television ads. Those positions have put the group at odds with many of the party’s grass-roots conservative voters.
But the group has also drawn the ire of some Hispanic and immigration advocacy groups by raising concerns about some of President Obama’s more sweeping executive actions on immigration, and by pouring money into House races to help defeat two Hispanic lawmakers — Pete P. Gallego of Texas and Joe Garcia of Florida, both Democrats — because they supported the president’s health care plan, among other issues Libre opposes.
Craig Hughes, a Democratic strategist who managed Mr. Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns in Colorado along with Senator Michael Bennet’s 2010 race there, said that while the group’s “potentially unlimited funds” from the Koch network were a source of worry for him, he thought the group would still have a tough time making its pitch to Hispanic voters.
“The question is, does an aggressive outreach and relationship-building program help them when their candidates are at such odds with the population?” Mr. Hughes said. “I am highly doubtful, but I never underestimate the impact of a massive amount of money in politics.”
Libre, which was created in June 2011, now has between 65 and 70 full-time employees in nine states — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Freedom Partners, an umbrella organization for Koch network donors, has provided the group with $15.8 million in funding, according to federal tax records, and Libre now has more than 1,000 donors of its own.
The initiative is based on a model used successfully by Democratic-leaning groups in Hispanic-outreach efforts, consisting of both an education component (the Libre Institute, a nonprofit) and an advocacy arm (the Libre Initiative).
The group says that it genuinely wants to make a difference in the community, and offers its services to everyone, including undocumented immigrants. Libre has helped Hispanics get driver’s licenses in Nevada, provided English lessons in Florida and held seminars on how to start a business in Virginia.
These community services speak to what the group says is its core mission — to provide Hispanics with the tools to lift themselves toward the American dream of economic freedom and success, while also showing them that they do not need to rely on the government to succeed.
“At the end of the day, we want Hispanics to prosper, to be self-reliant, to achieve their full potential,” said Ivette Fernandez, national director of theLibre Institute, which is running a pilot program to help people study for and pass G.E.D. exams. “So we felt it was very important to be able to educate them on those principles the country is based on.”
At same time, Libre’s advocacy arm engages deeply in the political process. Since the group’s inception, Libre volunteers have made 4.7 million phone calls and knocked on 160,000 doors; their goal is to make three million calls this cycle.
Even at community-focused events, every attendee is typically asked for some bit of information — email, phone number, and perhaps an issue of concern — which is then provided to both Libre and i360, the Koch network’s voter data operation. And every event usually has some tie-in with Libre’s economic policy agenda.
“Without question, with apologies to nobody, we want to influence the policy agenda,” Mr. Garza said. “It should come with some type of messaging, everything we do, and we don’t apologize for that. We are an advocacy organization.”
Democrats are taking notice. Cristóbal Alex, the president of the Latino Victory Project, said that after being “caught by surprise in 2014,” his group is working with other Hispanic organizations across the nation to counter Libre’s influence.
“They’re a threat in the sense that their focus is very much aligned with theTea Party, and the type of work that they do, in our view, is really about advancing their donors’ prerogatives, the Koch brothers’ prerogatives,” Mr. Alex said. “That’s the threat. They’re pouring significant resources into our communities to get Latinos to vote against their own best interests.”
The challenge of turning credibility with Hispanic communities into votes was illustrated by the Saturday church event where most of the attendees — who cooled themselves with Libre-emblazoned cardboard fans and clutched blue and yellow Libre balloons — had never heard of the group before and mostly leaned Democratic or were apolitical.
Haydee Colina, 52, came to the United States from Panama, and is not yet eligible to vote. With her daughter helping to translate, Ms. Colina said she appreciated the work Libre was doing. “It’s very good,” she said.
“But,” her daughter added, “of course she would still vote Democratic.”
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