Albuquerque - On the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico's most populous city where Latino residents outnumber Anglos, African-Americans and Asians by a wide margin, groups on both sides of the political spectrum are organizing new ways to engage and turnout Latino voters.
Behind the closed doors of an Albuquerque hotel conference room last week, conservative political operatives and conservative business leaders from across the Southwest converged to hear from Republican Party leaders and Koch brothers funded operatives on new ways conservative groups were quietly luring Latinos into a political movement that actively works against them.
In January 2014, Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-funded conservative 'grassroots' organization, quietly laid off its staff and closed the doors on their New Mexico affiliate.
The Huffington Post reported the news:
Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, is pulling out of New Mexico amid the rollout of a multi-million dollar anti-Obamacare ad campaign, ProgressNow New Mexico has confirmed.
Americans for Prosperity expanded to New Mexico as part of multi-state expansion to thwart support for President Barack Obama's reelection in 2012.
Just over a year later, the group is "reallocating their resources elsewhere," and won't have any "boots on the ground" in New Mexico, state field representative Pam Wolfe told ProgressNow, a progressive grassroots organization based in Albuquerque, N.M.
Progressive groups claimed victory over AFP's failure to organize enough traditional conservative voters to join the movement in the minority-majority state just after progressive groups organized to defeat the nation's first municipal abortion ban by engaging Hispanic and Latino women to turn out to vote against the proposal backed by the Catholic Church.
But AFP's commitment to "reallocate their resources elsewhere" kept local progressive groups on the lookout. They soon noticed another Koch-backed organization, The Libre Initiative, ramping up staff and visibility in non-traditional conservative communities that had long been the sole work area of Democrats and socially progressive non-profits.
"Represented at [a 2014 conservative donors'] summit were groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Mercatus Center, the Libre Initiative, and more -- all part of the well funded network able to contribute massive amounts of cash into political causes anonymously." KPBS/INewsSource, 6/16/14
The Libre Initiative ('libre' is Spanish for 'liberty') is at the forefront of Republicans' national efforts to recruit Hispanic voters to their cause. Here's how the Bridge Project explains Libre's work:
They brand themselves as a "grassroots organization" founded "to empower Hispanics" and advance "liberty, freedom and prosperity," but they are run by Republican operatives and financed almost entirely by the Koch network.
Outwardly, the LIBRE Initiative seems like a local service-oriented organization; they sponsor local festivals, help undocumented citizens obtain drivers licenses, and hold seminars on entrepreneurship.
While LIBRE talks obliquely about economic freedom and personal responsibility during their grassroots community outreach, they're playing a long game. Their ultimate goal is to build trust in the community and thus build a more receptive audience for their partisan messages...
However, the policies that LIBRE supports hurt the Latino community. An obvious example is immigration policy. LIBRE claims to be for comprehensive immigration reform, but their actual agenda seems to be providing political cover for the GOP's anti-immigrant agenda. Daniel Garza, the group's executive director, said in 2012 that President Obama's executive order protecting DREAMers from deportation, or DACA, was "pandering" and "dangerous." He also questioned whether the move would provide any economic benefit. LIBRE's position on immigration seems to be a moving target. Garza testified more recently that he's for keeping the well-received DACA program because it already went into effect, but he's against the program DAPA, which extends protection to the family of DREAMers, because it's executive over-reach.
Their advocacy against the interests of the community that they supposedly serve doesn't end with immigration. LIBRE spent millions on ads that attacked supporters of Obamacare even though, according to The Nation, "Latinos are more likely to be uninsured than any other group in the US." Policies pushed by the Koch network generally, such as opposition to the minimum wage and President Obama's plan to offer two free years of community college, are also harmful to Latinos.
As Libre's presence expands into new states, local press is taking note and many appear surprised to learn of the conservative agenda behind the seemingly innocuous new organizing group.
As the Associated Press noted in 2014:
"Its organizers pitch conservative ideals while offering tutorials on U.S. immigration law, support for overhauling the broken immigration system that stops short of campaigning for the Senate's bipartisan bill and collecting donations for the unaccompanied children crossing the United States-Mexico border illegally. In effect, it is a shadow GOP -- one with a gentle emphasis on social services and assimilation over a central party often seen as hostile to immigrants and minorities."
And Libre is not wasting any time implementing their agenda. In late May, a group of political operatives and business leaders heard from Republican Party leaders and Libre staff about their efforts to gain trust with Hispanic voters. The agenda focused on business regulation and small business engagement. Other public forums sponsored by Libre have provided driver's license training to Latinos.*
Never mind that the speakers in the room included New Mexico Lt. Gov. John Sanchez (R) who, along with Gov. Susana Martinez, publicly opposed Obamacare and campaigned to repeal New Mexico's law providing licenses to undocumented residents.
CNN covered Libre's May meeting in Albuquerque.
Victory for both parties in 2016 could hinge on mobilizing Latino voters -- and the battle for their support is already fierce.
The epicenter is here in the American southwest, where the Libre Initiative, a conservative group, is spending millions on outreach to Latino voters, an effort that has sparked a backlash from Democrats worried about Libre's potential.
In anticipation of the upcoming election cycle, Libre is undertaking one of the most ambitious and expensive Latino outreach programs by any conservative organization yet. It will have a $14 million operating budget in 2015, according to a source with knowledge of the group's fiances who requested anonymity to speak freely. Libre now has field staff in ten states, with plans to expand further in 2016. Most of Libre's funding comes from a network of conservative donors organized by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch.
"Their tactics are welcoming to many Latinos and Hispanics who feel that politicians talk about them, not to them," says Victor Reyes of ProgressNowNM, a progressive non-profit organizing group opposing and frequent critic of the Koch agenda. "But what they are really doing is deplorable because they lure in voters with promises to 'educate' them on issues and make their lives better, but then end up doing a bait and switch by turning newly engaged Latinos onto candidates who oppose the very policies these new voters are told they support. It is pandering 101 and Democrats are as much to blame for taking the Latino vote for granted for too long."
As a minority-majority state (46% of the state's population is Hispanic) with a relatively small population (just over 2 million residents), New Mexico is proving to be a perfect lab for Latino and Hispanic voter engagement. A little money can go a long way here and the Koch brothers have provided Libre with a lot of it: at least $14 million to start.
Update: This line has been changed to reflect that the event's agenda is available online.