cruz rubio
Republican presidential candidates and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, of Texas, (left) and Marco Rubio, of Florida, shake hands Jan. 28, 2016, and talk at the end of a debate held by Fox News in Des Moines, Iowa. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Only one nominating contest remains before South Carolina voters get to have their say, but unlike Monday's caucuses in Iowa and next week’s showdown in New Hampshire, Latinos could figure more prominently in the Palmetto State’s early voting process Feb. 20. There’s just one thing, though: Tough stances on immigration by leading Republican candidates Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who are both Cuban-American — coupled with rival Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric — may have already alienated the coveted voting bloc to the point of no return.

While South Carolina’s quickly growing Latino population has traditionally shared similar socially conservative views largely associated with the GOP, political analysts and state politicians alike caution those voters are unlikely to cast ballots for either Cruz or Rubio regardless of their shared heritage — even if the candidates do ultimately adopt more inclusive language when it comes to Latinos.

“It will be truly ironic if either Cruz or Rubio becomes the nominee for their party," Michael Jones-Correa, a political science professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, said. They are "the first Latino candidates of a major party and yet receive almost no Latino support and are running on positions that run contrary to those held by many Latino voters.”

RCP Poll Average for South Carolina Republican Primary | InsideGov

Trump, still the party’s front-runner despite losing to Cruz in Iowa, pushed immigration reform into the center of the political arena when he announced his bid for the presidency last year, labeling Mexicans immigrants "rapists" and "criminals" and demanding that a giant wall be built along the U.S. southern border to keep them out. The comments outraged many, but Cruz and Rubio had already been dialing back any support they may have had for comprehensive immigration reform.

Rubio, who once cosponsored a piece of legislation in 2012 that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, had taken a big step back and recanted his endorsement for what the presidential candidates now call "amnesty" as he prepared for his campaign. Cruz has repeatedly tried to attack Rubio for that history, but Rubio has noted that the Texan once supported more compassionate approaches to immigration, too.

Their positions on immigration have evoked derision from South Carolina's best known senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, who has endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for president. Graham’s two Senate colleagues, he said Tuesday, have shifted to the right on immigration and are hurting the party when it comes to Latino voters by following Trump. "That's very disappointing because that will come back to bite us as a party," Graham said.

Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., agrees wholeheartedly.

“I think they could’ve stood up to Trump and that would’ve definitely gotten them some praise from Latinos,” Wilkes said. “But, you know, honestly the whole party is going to pay the price when you have somebody like Trump running around for a year bashing Latinos, bashing Muslims.”

South Carolina isn’t a place routinely associated with Hispanics, but it boasts the second fastest-growing Latino population in the country, according to the most recent statistics.

The state’s northeastern city of Greenville is a perfect example: The number of Hispanics there, which includes people from a range of places in Latin America, jumped 866 percent between 1990 and 2013. The booming demographic reinvigorated once faltering Greenville neighborhoods and opened up businesses that contribute to the local economy.

To hear Max White, the city's Republican mayor, tell it, that surge has helped bring the concerns of Hispanic voters there to the attention of local officials. For the most part, White said, Republican ideals have matched well with Hispanics in his community, as they tend to have similar socially conservative values on issues like abortion, same sex marriage and the economy.

However, White cautioned, the harsh rhetoric from Trump and Cruz is neither helping the Latino population integrate into the political system nor into the GOP. Rubio may yet prove to be more of a moderate should he make it to the general election, but far-right positioning from his opponents in the primary is stymying GOP outreach efforts, the mayor said.

“I think it would be much healthier for the Hispanic population to be a part of the two party system,” White said. “Obviously, with this hyperbole about immigration and undocumented Mexicans and such … that’s not received favorably in this community. [Immigration] certainly has been more highlighted with this election campaign.”

It’s no secret that the stakes are high for the Republican Party as a whole to figure out how to appeal to Latino voters in the country if it wants to keep winning elections in the future. The issue has been top of mind for the GOP since at least 2012, when Republican nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was trounced by then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama among Latinos, 71 percent to 27 percent. That’s worse than any Republican had performed in the three elections prior, according to CNN.

In South Carolina, the Hispanic population jumped 148 percent in the first decade of this century while the total population only increased 15.3 percent. The group now makes up 5 percent of the state’s total population and there are 82,000 eligible Hispanic voters there. That proportion is going to grow, too, as the median age of Hispanics in the state sits at just 24 years old.

Marco Rubio on Immigration | InsideGov

That population boom follows national trends. The Hispanic population in the U.S. as a whole reached a record high in 2014 of 55.4 million people, an increase of 1.2 million from the year before. The growth rate has slowed down from previous years, but again, half of the eligible Latino voters in 2016 will be young. Nearly half will be millennials, according to Pew Research Center.

"We've held community meetings and listening sessions in areas of the state" with rising Latino populations, Matt Moore, the South Carolina GOP chairman, said. "The Hispanics are a growing population here in South Carolina. We have our eye on population changes here."

Ted Cruz on Immigration | InsideGov

Polls show, though, that at least for the presidential election, Trump is likely to cast a heavy shadow on the Republican Party, at least through the general election but at most much longer. He's currently 16.3 points ahead of Cruz, who is in second place with 19.7 percent of the vote, in South Carolina averages of polls. Rubio is behind Cruz in third place with 12.7 percent. In Nevada, which has a considerable Latino population, Trump, with 33 percent, leads Cruz and Rubio by double-digits, respectively. So, not only is there a candidate who has taken a divisive stance on immigration, that candidate has been killing it in the polls for months.

“This [election] could be the worst percentage ever [for Republicans], it really could,” Wilkes said of potential fallout among Latinos for the GOP. “If things continue in the direction they’re going, people may look back to Romney’s paltry showing and think that was a good one compared to what happens this November.”