There is only one State of the Union. But in 2016, for the fifth time, there will be two official Republican responses to the State of the Union: one in English and one in Spanish.
This year, the Spanish-language response will be delivered by Miami-area Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. He does not have an easy job.
Diaz-Balart could choose to deliver a simple translation of the main Republican response, which will be delivered in English by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. But he might also add some lines of his own — like Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who's also from Miami, did when he gave the Spanish response last year.
And in a year when Donald Trump is representing Diaz-Balart's party on the national stage — and might be representing it at the ballot box in November — what Diaz-Balart chooses to do could say a lot about how the GOP thinks it can make inroads (or at least do damage control) among Latino voters.
Mario Diaz-Balart is part of a Cuban-American Miami dynasty
Mario Diaz-Balart is currently serving his seventh term in Congress, representing a heavily Cuban-American district in South Florida. The Diaz-Balart family is a political dynasty that perfectly represents the politics of the area: a Republicanism defined by opposition to communism in general and Cuban dictators Fidel and Raúl Castro in particular.
Mario's father, Rafael Diaz-Balart, was a Cuban politician in the pre-Castro era who founded one of the very first anti-Castro groups. One of Mario's brothers, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, was also a longtime congressman (he retired in 2011); another brother, Jose Diaz-Balart, is an anchor and reporter for Telemundo.
The Republican Party leans heavily on Miami-area Latinos to deliver its State of the Union responses in Spanish: Diaz-Balart's fellow Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo have also delivered versions of the English speeches, and Marco Rubio spoke in both English and Spanish in 2013.
But the Cuban Republicanism of Diaz-Balart and his colleagues is distinct from the conservatism that defines the GOP in much of the rest of America. And nowhere is that clearer than on immigration — which is not exactly a minor issue to the Republican Party in 2016.
Diaz-Balart is one of the few congressional Republicans who still supports comprehensive immigration reform
There are very few Republicans in Congress who still believe that both parties should get together to pass an immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US. Diaz-Balart is one of them.
He has been calling for comprehensive immigration reform since George W. Bush was president. He was part of a working group to develop a House immigration bill during both Obama's first and second terms (both went nowhere, with the second going only slightly further than nowhere, after most of the other Republicans dropped out). As late as May 2014, long after most Republicans had abandoned the idea of the House passing an equivalent to the Senate's 2013 immigration bill, Diaz-Balart was reportedly working with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and now-Speaker Paul Ryan to introduce and pass a bill. (That plan was abandoned after then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) shocked Congress by losing a primary to a Tea Party challenger, based partly on Cantor's refusal to rule out passing any sort of immigration reform.)
Like many Republicans, Diaz-Balart blames President Obama and the Democrats for the death of comprehensive reform, saying they want to use it as a political football. But while he believes that Obama's executive actions to protect immigrants from deportation weren't the right answer, he doesn't go out of his way to attack them as an unconstitutional abuse of power, either — or vote with his Republican colleagues to reverse or defund them.
This is exactly what makes Rep. Diaz-Balart and other Miami Republicans like him appealing spokespeople for Latino voters, especially those who do or might be persuaded to vote Republican. And while there might also be differences between the Spanish and English speeches on other issues — like Cuba, for example — how the GOP handles immigration across its responses will be the question to watch on Tuesday night.
If Gov. Haley is silent on immigration, Diaz-Balart might add a line about it — as Carlos Curbelo did last year. And if she hammers on "executive amnesty" or "the need to enforce the law," or if she calls to restrict refugees, it's very unlikely that Diaz-Balart will deliver those passages verbatim.
The Trump problem
In reality, of course, the GOP isn't just trying to coordinate messaging between Haley and Diaz-Balart. It's trying to figure out a message that won't totally alienate either Latino voters or the longstanding frontrunner for the Republican nomination: Donald Trump.
Diaz-Balart represents everything about the establishment Republican Party that Trump supporters hate. He's a supporter of "amnesty" and of military interventionism. His brother is not only a journalist but a journalist for a Spanish-language television network. And his speech is a reminder that many members of the Republican Party don't feel multiculturalism is a serious threat to the American way of life — in fact, they embrace it and are trying to figure out how best to use it to their advantage.
On a personal level, Trump and Diaz-Balart don't have bad blood, but it would be understandable if they did. Trump shouted down Jose Diaz-Balart during a press conference in July (one of many times he's bullied members of the Spanish-language media). Mario Diaz-Balart, for his part, is a staunch supporter of Jeb Bush who supported some of Bush's early attacks on Trump by saying, "Jeb looks like the adult in the room because he is the adult in the room."
But Diaz-Balart has consistently stopped short of criticizing Trump directly. Whenever he's asked about Trump, he pivots to how the Republican nominee (whoever it is) can and must defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election. In that, he's consistent with many of his Republican elected-official colleagues: You might be able to infer that they don't like Trump, but you'd never know it from what they say in public.
No one would say that Diaz-Balart has an opportunity to become the face of the GOP for Spanish speakers. Trump already has that honor. And even if he doesn't win the Republican nomination, there's an open question as to whether even a Bush or Rubio would be able to reach out to Latinos as the nominee, or whether the ghost of Trump would haunt the party through November.
That makes Diaz-Balart's job very difficult indeed. He can't attack Trump, and he can't pretend that the Republican Party is universally pro-comprehensive immigration reform. But in order to appeal to Latinos on the behalf of the Republican Party, he has to give them a glimpse of a world where Trump does not exist.