The Republican presidential primary got going in earnest this month, but one of the Republican Party's biggest, most complex, most painful challenges still hasn't been solved: what to do about Univision.
The Spanish-language network has vast reach into America's Latino communities, a relentless focus on the Republican Party's least favorite issue, and close connections to Hillary Clinton. It's an immovable feature of the political landscape, and navigating around or through it is emerging as a key test for a party desperate to improve its dismal standing with a vital and growing share of the American electorate — and the subject of growing alarm among Republican leaders, operatives, and activists.
"It's highly questionable whether we're treated fairly on Univision," RNC chairman Reince Priebus told BuzzFeed News, adding that the party was going to keep at it. "You can fight all day long with people, not to say that that wouldn't continue, but at the same time you still have to get your message out."
Democrats see the dynamic just as clearly.
"The GOP needs Univision more than Univision needs the GOP," said Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi. "For a party looking to be competitive nationally again, they can't risk alienating the premier outlet that caters to the fastest-growing part of the electorate."
The scale of the Republicans' problem is hard to question. Univision reaches three times as many 18- to 49-year-old Hispanic adults with its flagship national news broadcast as CBS, NBC, and ABC do with their evening newscasts combined. The network reaches 96% of Hispanic households; 72% of Univision's primetime audience does not watch any of the top-rated English-language newscasts.
"After the Catholic Church, the next thing [American Latinos] trust the most is Univision," Univision News senior vice president Daniel Coronell told BuzzFeed News.
The network has a direct connection to the likely Democratic Party nominee for president. Univision's part-owner, Haim Saban, is one of Hillary Clinton's staunchest supporters. Of the former secretary of state, Saban once told an Israeli newspaper, "Seeing her in the White House is a big dream of mine." There are also formal connections: Univision partnered with the Clinton Foundation for an early education initiative in 2014.
Republicans, by and large, declined to criticize Univision on the record, citing its power. But speaking on the condition of anonymity, Republican operatives run down a litany of complaints, always returning to Univision's emphasis on immigration and the way the network's highest-profile journalist, Jorge Ramos, acts as an advocate on the issue.
"Immigration dictates their coverage," said a senior GOP source, a complaint made repeatedly to BuzzFeed News by Republicans. "We just took the Senate in Colorado, we just took the U.S. Senate, but Univision will generalize our platform as us not wanting to fund Obama's executive order," the source said of Republican opposition to the president's immigration actions.
The senior GOP source pointed to Colorado's first-ever Spanish-language debate, which was hosted by Univision in October, between Republican Mike Coffman and Democrat Andrew Romanoff. Immigration questions dominated the debate.
There have also been high-profile battles on other topics. In 2011, the network planned to report on the decades-old drug bust of Rubio's brother-in-law, but offered to approach on-air coverage of the story differently — if Rubio agreed to an interview with Ramos. The story aired and Rubio went on with Ramos the next year in an interview that became contentious over the issue.
It is the focus on immigration, in particular, that grates on Republicans, in part because they say it contrasts so sharply with what Univision executives tell them when they're asking for ad dollars. In the fall of 2013, less than a year after President Obama carried 71% of the Latino vote, for instance, Republican officials listened at the Capitol Hill Club to a presentation from two people: Keith Norman, a vice president from Univision, and an outside pollster for the network. The message was simple: Immigration, according to the polling, wasn't the top issue for Latinos. Jobs and the economy, education, and health care all ranked higher.
The pitch, the kind party officials had received before and received again in 2014, was clear — spend money with Univision to reach Latino voters in competitive congressional races in places like Florida, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas.
The Republican officials grumbled, then decided they had no choice, and bought digital ads on Univision.com and 30-second audio ads on Univision's music radio app Uforia in Miami, hitting the president on Obamacare.
Univision News' Coronell, a former high-profile journalist in Colombia, defended the network's coverage as fair, saying Republicans aren't the only ones complaining. He pointed to Ramos' sharp coverage of Obama's immigration record and their last sitdown interview as just the latest example of the Democratic administration's ongoing frustration with Univision.
"Some of the members of the White House communications team felt that Jorge was not respectful enough to the president and very insistent and picky with his questions," Coronell said. "Jorge Ramos asked about deportations numbers, he asked why he took so long to make this decision. The role of journalism is to ask, to be the counterweight to the politicians."
Coronell repeated a common refrain: The network has a standing invitation to top Republican officials. He downplayed the issue of Saban, the Clinton donor and Univision owner.
"With respect to Mr. Saban, Mr. Saban is not involved with editorial decisions at Univision," he said. "This is a serious company, he is very respectful to our journalistic independence. He's not connected with our day to day; we're not in this to build his happiness."
Univision representatives told BuzzFeed News the network's partnership with the Clinton Foundation also includes former Republican Sen. Bill Frist and Cindy McCain, the wife of Sen. John McCain, who are part of the Too Small to Fail leadership advisory council. (Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was approached for an education partnership, too, a Republican source said, but the talks never advanced.) The network also pointed to a Hispanic employment event it did with Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey as evidence of broader political cooperation.
But when it comes to the main Republican complaint — that the network focuses too narrowly on immigration — Ramos and Coronell argue the issue is tied to the network's core appeal.
"It's true that immigration is not the most important issue for Latinos," Ramos said. "However, immigration is the most important symbolic issue for Latinos. Immigration defines who is with us and who is against us. Immigration is something personal."
He said half of all Latinos in the United States over 18 are immigrants and Univision will continue to press on immigration because it is an unresolved issue. He and Coronell said their approach is influenced by Univision's special relationship with its audience, an audience that can't find immigration news in English as readily.
"In many ways Univision is different from other networks and it has to do with the lack of political representation of Latinos," Ramos said, noting that Hispanics comprise 17% of the U.S. population but there are only three Latino senators. "It falls on Spanish-language media to defend and represent those who have no representation, especially those who are undocumented."
And Democrats argue Republicans are using complaints to mask their simple aversion to talking about immigration — an issue that divides the GOP — at all.
"Democrats make themselves available so they get hit hard, Republicans do not," said Gabriela Domenzain, an Obama campaign veteran who spent years at Univision. She said there was only one time Republicans would actively seek out the network. "Unless something said in some newscast ticked them off, then they would call us until we booked Spanish-speaking Republicans to do damage control."
Latino Republicans say the network's influence makes ignoring Univision a nonstarter and some see openings for better coverage.
Ken Oliver-Méndez, with MRC Latino, a conservative media watchdog focused on Spanish-language media, said his organization believes Univision should either do a programming alliance with a conservative organization to offset its partnership with Clinton or drop it all together. But he also said Republicans need to a do a better job of engaging with Spanish-language media like Univision and Telemundo.
"Conservatives have an obligation to get their message out," he said.
That's why MRC Latino provided news organizations with a list of Spanish-language conservative sources, whom he called "eloquent, serious policy experts," in August.
For his part, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who many expect to run for president, and isn't one to shy away from speaking frankly, didn't criticize the network's ties to Clinton.
"That's not a question I've examined," he told BuzzFeed News. "I've been interviewed by Univision many times."
The former RNC official said Republicans should also think about the high-powered local Univision affiliates which can get more viewers than national newscasts with Ramos. "People work really long hours," the source said. "Somewhere like Las Vegas, the middle-class worker doesn't get out till late, they might miss Ramos but they get their news from the local affiliate."
The numbers in some cities bear it out. According to statistics provided by the network, Univision broadcast stations in Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, and Fresno ranked number one ahead of ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC among adults 18-49 and adults 18-34 during primetime.
The local opportunity also presents yet another problem, though: While national Univision is seen as more balanced in their segments, "when it comes to local coverage, there is more difficulty with local producers," the senior GOP source said.
Others point to progress in the relationship, with Univision working hard to develop relationships in both parties working through internal "red" and "blue" teams, which led to the RNC developing relationships with network general managers, for example.
But Ramos told BuzzFeed News that he's not planning to back off as the 2016 election approaches, and he said the only way the Republicans can fix it is by acting on immigration.
"I understand why the Republican party is so concerned," he said. "Latinos know that Republicans are the ones blocking immigration reform right now and they're going to have to deal with that in 2016. Unless they resolve the immigration issue, they might lose the Latino vote again and then they will lose the White House again."
Kate Nocera and Ben Smith contributed reporting.