By Mario Trujillo - 05/06/13 09:00 AM EDT
Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) did not need a rebranding to gain traction with Hispanic voters. The Republican freshman is the son of Portuguese immigrants, representing a district that is more than 70 percent Hispanic.
“I think the fact that I grew up in this — and I’m not afraid to talk about it, I’m not afraid to be involved in it — helps me with my district. I think that helps people believe that I understand the issues,” Valadao told The Hill.
Valadao is one of five House Republicans who represent a Hispanic-majority district. His inaugural victory came in the same year his party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Republicans have looked to rebrand themselves within the Hispanic community and party leaders have embraced immigration reform in the wake of the poor performance in 2012.
A combination of deep ties to the agricultural industry, a relatable biographical story and the absence of a strong opponent helped Valadao win a district dominated by the nation’s fastest growing ethnic demographic.
“They polled against me, but they decided to not spend a whole lot of money against me, and again I think that falls on my background— the way I approach issues,” he said.
Valadao won his district by 18 percent last year and maintained a huge fundraising advantage over Democrat John Hernandez — who lacked support from the national party. Romney lost the same district to Obama by 11 points.
“If you look at the history of my district, [it] has elected Republicans locally,” he said, noting that he won a seat in the state assembly by overcoming a similar Democratic registration advantage in 2010.
Only one other Republican, fellow Californian Rep. Gary Miller, sits in a district that went more heavily for Obama.
Last month, the National Republican Congressional Committee named Valadao as one of 11 vulnerable members whom it will help with organizational and fundraising support. Democrats have marked him as a top target in 2014.
“Congressman Valadao’s Republican leaders are the biggest obstruction to immigration reform,” said Matt Inzeo, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Valadao said he does not let political pressure affect his governing. He maintains his constituents set his priorities.
At the top of that list is immigration. He agrees with the basic framework laid out in the Senate’s Gang of Eight proposal. In the past, he said, Republicans have hurt themselves with their hard-line message on immigration.
“Immigration is something that does affect voters,” he said. “If your first stance is, you are tough on immigrants and people who want to come to this country, you are telling them that you don’t want them here. It is just not a good way to start a conversation.”
A bipartisan group of eight House members is working on its own proposal, which is expected to be released soon. Valadao sought out the secretive group and began asking questions about the proposal shortly after entering Congress.
“That is one of the first things I reached out to when I got here,” he said. “I went over to the group here in the House, started spending some time with a couple of them who would talk to me. And they asked me to get involved in the [agricultural] side, since I’m the guy with the ag connection.”
Valadao’s family owns two dairies and more than 1,000 acres of farmland in California, where he still lives. He said it is easier for immigrants to identify with some of the core principles of the party if you can break through the initial, negative perception of the GOP.
He is fluent in both Portuguese and Spanish.
“Even on my ranch, when I talk to employees of mine who are immigrants as well, both Portuguese and Hispanic, it is always interesting to see the look on their face, when they’re like, ‘wait a minute, this is what you are fighting for?’ ” Valadao said.
“It is a little bit different than what [they] are hearing in the press and a little bit different than what [they] are hearing from [their] buddies.”
A similar transformation happened within Valadao’s family years ago. After gaining citizenship, his parents initially registered with the Democratic Party. As a young man on the Azores Islands of Portugal, his father was influenced by watching President John F. Kennedy on TV.
His parents later changed parties — a transformation Republicans hope will become more commonplace with its new immigration push.
“It probably took him four or five years of conversation around the dinner table, running our business, figuring out, watching the news, staying up on what is going on in the world, that my dad realized, ‘Hey wait a minute…this party is more closely aligned with what I want to be,’ ” he said.