It’s been the dominant conventional wisdom ever since a wave of Hispanic Republicans won big races in 2010: Mitt Romney will pick a Hispanic running mate. But Romney may not be able to make that fantasy ticket a reality — even if he wants to.
Picking a Hispanic politician would be a logical way to boost appeal with a key constituency. Republicans, including Romney, have some “catching up to do” with Hispanic voters after lashing themselves to the anti-immigration wing of the party in recent years. A cavalcade of pundits and strategists argue that a Hispanic vice president might be their last, best shot to clean up their image before they lose a rapidly growing demographic for a generation.
Selecting a Latino vice presidential nominee “would be great for the GOP,” Republican consultant Hessy Fernandez told TPM, “because given the long-term trends, it really needs a historic ticket.”
Others are less enthused, suggesting it might make the GOP look like they’re pandering.
But Romney may not be able to balance his ticket with a Hispanic rising star regardless of the debate’s merits. Of the three big names to emerge from that 2010 class, at least two look highly unlikely to occupy the No. 2 spot and one is steadfastly denying interest, potentially denying the GOP its big chance at damage control.
On Sunday, popular New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R), told the local Albuquerque Journal she did not want to be considered for the job. That’s hardly news on its own — lots of potential candidates deny interest before reversing themselves later — but she offered an explanation more personal and ironclad than most: She has a developmentally disabled sister in her custody and a father with Alzheimer’s, neither of whom she feels would benefit from her running.
“The family has to be a consideration, and for me to take (my sister) to Washington would be to separate her from … the family that’s down there, and that would be devastating,” Martinez told the Journal. “I just couldn’t do it.”
There are other options: Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is a charismatic phenom and would lend Romney some conservative bona fides, and Mexican-American Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is well-regarded in Nevada and has an impressive resume that also includes a stint as attorney general. Romney has praised both and mentioned their names as possible candidates for Cabinet positions should he win.
Sandoval, however, identifies as pro-choice, making him a difficult pick for any Republican — just ask John McCain, whose first choice of Joe Lieberman was scuttled for exactly that reason. Sandoval’s abortion position makes him an even more unlikely sidekick for Romney, who has struggled to quell social conservatives’ skepticism over his own late-life conversion to their cause. And that’s without getting into other issues: Sandoval broke a no-tax pledge as governor and his bright optimism on the economy even in worst-in-the-nation Nevada (he’s nicknamed “Gov. Sunny”) clashes with Romney’s gloom-and-doom message.
That leaves Rubio, the best known nationally of the bunch, as the GOP’s lone hope for a Hispanic running mate. But he’s repeatedly denied any interest. “I’m not going to be the vice president,” he said last week, shortly after endorsing Romney.
It’s an open question how seriously these denials should be taken — feigned lack of desire to abandon one’s constituents is de rigeur for potential veeps. But the forcefulness and the frequency of his denials is at least generating some skepticism that he’s a slam dunk to accept the position. Plenty of Republican heavyweights sat out the presidential race with an apparent eye toward 2016, and it’s possible Rubio may be biding his time as well.
While extremely popular with conservatives, Rubio also brings some vulnerabilities to the table: He’s young, largely untested on the national stage, and has a long voting record in the statehouse that could come under scrutiny. He has expressed past support for cap and trade, for example. Revelations that part of his family story as the child of Cuban immigrants, which he often touts on the trail, are inaccurate also has prompted some hand-wringing among the pundit class.
“I think that none of the Latino names in play will be picked,” one Republican strategist told TPM, citing concerns that Rubio’s public vetting process might overshadow Romney.
The combination seems to at least be dimming Rubio’s betting odds among the Beltway class: A recent poll of “insiders” by National Journal showed only 34 percent of Republican strategists thought he’d be the pick, down from an overwhelming 60 percent in October.
Beyond that trio, the bench of Latino Republicans is thin, with no obvious vice presidential candidates leaping out.
The new darling: Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), is not Hispanic but would be a safe, uninspiring choice. Portman is from a swing state, has impressive credentials and seems like a comfortable fit for Romney.
Jennifer Korn, executive director of the center-right Hispanic Leadership Network, told TPM that while she thinks a Hispanic running mate would be a boon to GOP outreach, she’s not holding her breath.
“It’s fun to speculate that ‘Oh yeah, of course they’ll pick a Hispanic,’ but it’s a lot more thoughtful than that,” she said. “People choose people for qualifications, what state, their experience — it doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion.”
Picking a Hispanic running mate is no guarantee Romney will be able to outperform his current dismal polling among that bloc, but without one his options to minimize the damage from his close ties to anti-immigration icons, like Kris Kobach and his proposed “self-deportation” plan, is limited.
One strategy that he and other Republicans seem to be jumping on early: disillusionment. Sure, we may not agree with Hispanic voters on immigration, the argument goes, but Obama hasn’t made much inroads on immigration reform in three years, either. Another option being tossed out is to come up with watered-down versions of popular reforms that can at least Republicans some cover without enraging the anti-immigrant conservative base.
Rubio himself has pitched a Republican-friendly DREAM Act, for example, that would put certain undocumented workers, students and military members on the path to permanent residency instead of citizenship. But despite strategists’ hopes and fantasies, the senator may have to work his latest plan from the sidelines come convention time.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.