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.
Since Libre's inception four years ago, the group has built a presence in states with high Latino populations by providing classes and free social services.
In Nevada, Libre sponsored a program to help people receive driver's licenses. In Florida, they partnered with H&R Block for tax preparation. Later this year, Libre plans to launch an education initiative that will pay for GED courses. The effort aims to build goodwill within the Latino community, while allowing Libre to collect data that will be instrumental in coordinating political ad campaigns and voter targeting efforts next year.
Libre also supports granting immigrants living in the country illegally a pathway to citizenship, a position that, while controversial on the right, allows them a gateway to increasing Latino support. The group does not, however, approve of President Barack Obama's use of executive orders to implement immigration policy--a tactic currently tied up in federal courts--which separates them from Latino outreach groups on the left.
"The Libre Initiative exists primarily to advance the principles of economic freedom to the Latino community," Libre Executive Director Daniel Garza, a former aide to George W. Bush and the son of migrant workers from Mexico, told CNN. "It is about driving a narrative, a conversation within the Latino community. If we're not helping to drive that agenda, somebody else is, and it's usually the left."
Last week, Libre's non-profit armed hosted a conference for about 100 Hispanic business leaders from seven states in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as part of the group's multi-million dollar effort to promote conservative ideas within the Latino community and, they hope, convince them to vote for Republicans in 2016. Set inside the ballrooms of the Crowne Plaza hotel just off the intersection of one highway that streches coast-to-coast across the United States and another that slopes southward to the Mexico border, business leaders sat through presentations and panels on energy, over-regulation and trade. Panels included titles such as "Regulations Stranglehold on Economic Prosperity" led by Libre operatives and talks about how to increase energy production in the state. Politics made a brief appearances when New Mexico Republican Lt. Gov. John Sanchez spoke on the power of the Latino vote.
"No president will be elected ever again unless they have the right message when it comes to how do they attract Hispanic voters," Sanchez said.
Indeed, in key battleground states, securing the Latino vote has been incredibly important in recent election cycles. In 2012, Obama received 71 percent of the vote. But in the 2014 mid-term elections, when the electorate is often more conservative than during presidential years, the GOP made gains within the community in states like Colorado, Texas and Florida.
Libre operated relatively quietly until last year's mid-term election, when the group's advocacy arm—called the Libre Initiative—ran paid political ads in English and Spanish in close races around the country. Libre's campaign helped remove Pete Gallego in Texas, Joe Garcia in Florida and Ron Barber in Arizona--all Democrats.
"It's been kind of a wake-up call," said Angela Kelley, an immigration reform advocate who works with liberal groups on Latino engagement. "Their message is intentionally fuzzy, but yet it's delivered with flawlessly competent clarity. That's a pretty brilliant combination. Those who disagree with Libre and the Koch brothers are really going to need to muscle up."
Now, a massive coalition of liberal groups is planning to strike back. Representatives from several organizations on the left met in the Washington office of the Latino Victory Project in early May to discuss a plan for how to counter Libre's efforts. Attendees included represenatives from labor unions, American Bridge, Mi Familia Vota, Media Matters and People For The American Way, according to attendees.
Initial plans have been made to sound an alarm against Libre by highlighting their ties to the Koch donor network and relay a message that Libre supports policies liberals say are against Latino interests. They also plan to release a report about Koch industries that digs into the company's record on workplace safety and the environment, Latino Victory Project President Cristobal Alex told CNN.
"While I admire the rapid growth of this organization, I'm afraid it's for disingenuous purposes," Alex said. "It's important for us to begin having some very serious conversations with our allies to counter what Libre is doing. No one has really pushed back. So far they've had free reign."
Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News revealed
that the Democratic National Committee had put together an internal presentation warning about Libre's strength that called on Democrats to increase voter engagement with Latinos.
"It has changed our calculus," Alex told CNN. "Those on the left are starting to see, because Latinos can change their mind about who to vote for, they're going to start to pay attention to that and really investing in the Latino community."
Groups on the left also point to the fact that the same donors who support Libre—which is vocally supportive of comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship--also help bankroll Republican congressional and presidential campaigns that oppose it.
"Libre's Achilles heel is exposure," said John Loredo, the former Democratic Minority Leader in the Arizona state House. "They align themselves with people who are openly anti-Latino. Exposing them, however it may happen, that's a killer for Libre."
Efforts against Libre are already underway. Last week — on the same day of the business conference in Albuquerque — a liberal research organization called the Bridge Project released a 48-page research document
that outlined Libre's priorities and some of their funding sources. The group released the paper online, along with a Spanish-language video
Representatives from liberal groups The Latino Victory Project, Open Society Foundation and Mi Familia Vota plan to hold a roundtable discussion with reporters to outline their plans to counter Libre. Next Monday, People for the American Way plans to host a briefing with activists to discuss their Latino outreach plans and ways to counter Libre.
"The irony here is that the Latino left had criticized the conservative movement for years that they were not doing outreach to the Latino community," Garza told CNN. "Now that the conservative movement is doing outreach and engaging in the Latino community on a national scale, they're criticizing us for that too. You can't have it both ways."