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Koch-backed Libre aims to boost GOP with Hispanics

Expensive effort centers on data and outreach

A Libre Initiative volunteer collected information last week at a Miami megachurch where free turkeys were offered.RYAN STONE/NEW YORK TIMES

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 names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of all who showed up.

The approach — a free Thanksgiving turkey for 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 farmworkers 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 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 Kochs 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 Kochs' 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 Obama's health care plan, and other issues Libre opposes.


Craig Hughes, a Democratic strategist who managed 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?" he 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.