Conservative evangelical voters are a key bloc in the Republican primary — that's not new.
But the presence of two rising Cuban-American candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz, as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has invigorated another segment of this crucial bloc of voters: conservative, Hispanic evangelicals. The growing bloc voters (19% of Hispanics and counting) is more conservative and more strongly pro-life than other Latinos.
And as Cruz and Rubio spar over their records — especially on national security and immigration — these voters who are passionate about immigration, an issue at the nexus between their culture and their faith, are watching.
And in the case of Rubio, engaging. The Florida senator is "slowly but surely" increasing outreach to Hispanic evangelicals, a source close to the campaign said, not wanting to wait until May or June 2016.
Rubio's campaign has increasingly reached out to faith leaders since the last Republican debate on Nov. 10, according to pastors who have been contacted. Many Hispanic evangelicals have also been calling his campaign unprompted, the source close to the campaign said.
"We’ve had pastors who’ve come to us saying 'We really like Marco, Marco is a guy who is acceptable to us, he hasn’t made any anti-Hispanic remarks to the point that Donald Trump or Ted Cruz have,'" the source said.
The Hispanic evangelical community is "very key for the Republican party," said Florida GOP spokesman Wadi Gaitan. "Being able to garner the support of these pastors is key and as more and more candidates try to gain the support of this community they’re going to the churches."
Those in Rubio's campaign orbit believe a key leader — Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), which includes 40,000 congregations nationwide — already supports Rubio behind the scenes. A separate Republican source who works with Hispanic pastor groups and is unaffiliated with Rubio's campaign confirmed they heard the same thing.
"The grapevine is crazy," Rodriguez told BuzzFeed News by phone. "Sam Rodriguez has yet to formerly endorse, but I can tell you he's not supporting Donald Trump."
Rodriguez described Rubio as an "amazingly attractive candidate — he gets it." He called Jeb Bush and Rubio his "two preferable choices as individuals."
In an extensive New Yorker profile of the Florida senator released Monday, Rodriguez was also critical of Rubio on immigration, because he no longer supports the bipartisan bill he helped craft and usher through the Senate.
"Marco Rubio’s de-facto one-eighty on immigration after the Gang of Eight failed was nothing other than a mistake. It was a serious mistake, and, I would argue, an ethical miscalculation,” he said.
Bush and Mike Huckabee were the only candidates to go to the NHCLC's April national conference in Houston.
Hispanic pastors in Florida have viewed Rubio and Bush as their top two choices for a while, and say there is an appetite for a candidate that makes traditional values, national security, and uniting the country a priority.
Marilyn Lopez, who serves on the board of the Hispanic Association of South Florida, which includes 600 pastors and ministers, said she likes Rubio and Bush and wishes Huckabee was doing better in the race.
But the subject of Ted Cruz is a little different for her and others.
Lopez and other members of her church routinely pile into a coach bus and head to the state capitol in Tallahassee to lobby for pro-life bills, but also for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, which she says would "help the economy and keep roads safe." Immigration is also a matter of faith for her — and the reason Cruz doesn't crack her top three.
"Cruz talks really bad about immigration and that upsets me," she said.
If Rubio is questioned by the Latino evangelicals for how he's handled immigration since 2013, Cruz's sharper edges and more strident language have made him more polarizing on the issue.
"Sen. Ted Cruz is an amazing, brilliant individual and a wonderful Christian, a great brother in Christ," Rodriguez said. "But I would like to see Sen. Cruz, for his rhetoric to reflect more of his heart," he added, pointing to private conversations he has had with him that he believes more accurately reflect his views.
Publicly, Cruz has instead backed away from parts of immigration he used to support. In April, at a forum with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Cruz said the economy is the issue Latinos care about the most, not immigration. He repeated his oft-used line that he is the biggest champion of legal immigration. But he sounded a different tone months later, in the days after the last debate, when the fight between he and Rubio on immigration broke out into the open.
Cruz, who used to support increasing the number of high-skilled immigrant H-1B visas by up to 500%, said he now wanted to suspend the program for six months to "complete an audit of pervasive allegations of abuse" and would "halt any increases in legal immigration so long as American unemployment remains unacceptably high."
Frank Lopez, a board member of several pastor and minister organizations in Florida, said he likes Carson, Rubio, and Cruz — Bush is a "great man and a great governor," yet doesn't make the cut — but acknowledged that Cruz is the more polarizing of the group.
"I think we’re reaching a point where we’re going to have to make harder measurements on immigration but at the same time we need a candidate that deals with them with compassion and gives them a fair opportunity to stay here," he said.
The pastors said compassion is wholly missing from Trump's rhetoric, and point to Cruz's chumminess with the frontrunner as a problem.
"Cruz at times, because of the nature of the campaign and Donald Trump, the pressure Trump is exerting to move further right — no further wrong — on immigration, has presented the issue not as nuanced as it is," Rodriguez said.
San Antonio Pastor Marcus Burgos, who has worked with the conservative LIBRE Initiative in his church, favors Rubio and Cruz and made a distinction between them and Trump, but framed deporting undocumented immigrants as a community issue.
"As a Hispanic living in Texas, you can’t say everybody has to go," he said. "Everybody has a face and a name, in the grassroots, there is a relationship involved. If you believe everybody has to go you’re sending friends away, you’re sending family away."
Even Rubio supporters acknowledge that Cruz has been the candidate most aggressively courting evangelical voters, though. His father, Rafael Cruz, a Spanish-speaking pastor, is said to be reaching out to Hispanic evangelicals, known as evangélicos, but it is unclear how well it is going and how much of a priority it is for him. The campaign did not respond to a request for comment before publication.
And if Cruz's immigration rhetoric and policy turns off some, Hispanic pastors say they love his strong support for Israel. It's one area where Cruz appears to have a high-profile supporter. Mario Bramnick, president of Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition and the NHCLC's southeast director, has appeared at multiple events with Cruz including the rally to stop the Iran Deal, which also featured Trump. Bramnick declined repeated requests to comment, though a source who works with him said he likes Rubio, too.
Even the pastors who haven't always supported Republicans have received an entreaty or two from the campaigns.
Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., president of the Philadelphia based Esperanza, a group of 13,000 Hispanic faith and community-based organizations, was part of a White House delegation to Honduras and Guatemala, and has not ruled out supporting Republican candidates. Reached while on vacation, he said he has to return a call from the Rubio campaign when he gets back.
Like many of the other pastors, he said Syrian refugees should be properly screened after the Paris ISIS attacks but their religion should not be a factor. But he said candidates fall short when they fail to classify immigrants coming from Central America as refugees, too.
"One of the issues we have as Hispanic leaders, is that black lives matter, but maybe brown ones don’t," he said, annoyed that the only time Latinos are talked about during debates for each party is on immigration.
But even though the pastors listed many issues they care about: poverty, religious freedom, traditional marriage, and others, they all ultimately returned to Trump and immigration — and a warning for Cruz.
"I am extremely disappointed in Donald Trump’s positions," Cortés Jr. said. "I am also disappointed that he hasn’t been thoroughly denounced by the other candidates running. Candidates who don't want to go against him so they can eventually get his supporters." Anyone who won't denounce him, he said, "is willing to do anything to become president" and disqualifies themselves.
Marilyn Lopez said she wishes Republicans would adjust their rhetoric. "This is why I get upset, Democrats speak so nice. They draw the people that really need immigration reform," she said.
"It's sad Republican candidates don’t have that kind of heart," she said. "If we don’t talk about these issues we’re going to lose them to Hillary and to liberals because they seem to be more welcoming and that scares me."