There will be two televised debates in the Sunshine State in the week leading up to January 31 vote (including one in Tampa on January 23), but originally there were three scheduled, with a January 29 debate to take place on the nation's largest Hispanic television network, Univision.
But that debate was canceled in late September after most of the presidential candidates, in expressing solidarity with Florida U.S. GOP Senator Marco Rubio, announced they would boycott the event, after reports surfaced that the network had allegedly tried to blackmail him regarding a controversial story about a relative.
As the Miami Herald's Marc Caputo and Manny Garcia originally reported on October 1, the Spanish language network "offered what sounded like a deal to the U.S. Senator's staff."
That deal would be that if Rubio appeared on the network's Sunday public affairs program Al Punto, a story its news team had been working on regarding a decades-old drug bust of Rubio's brother-in-law "would be softened or might not run at all."
That, the Herald reported, was according to "Univision insiders and the Republican senator's staff."
Univision executives immediately decried that report, but essentially it has never been effectively challenged, until the publication this week of a story by the New Yorker's Ken Auletta called "War of Choice."
Auletta reports on the July 7th conference call between network executives and members of Senator Rubio's team. That call was reportedly the source of the "quid-pro-quo" charges regarding the story about Orlando Cicilia, Rubio's brother-in-law, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1989 for possession and sale of marijuana and cocaine (he was paroled in 2000).
The veteran reporter was allowed access to the notes taken in that call by Rubio's press spokesman, Alex Burgos. Of those notes, Auletta writes:
The notes of the conversation between Rubio's office and Univision don't provide a convincing case that Univision proposed dropping any mention of Senator Rubio's brother-in-law's criminal past if Rubio consented to an interview. They, and interviews with the people involved in the conflict, suggest that a complicated and politically risky game unfolded as the Republican Party shifted the date of the Florida primary. Rubio had every reason to punish Univision, and the national Republican Party had every reason to want to avoid holding a debate on a network that would ask aggressive questions about immigration. Both got what they desired, but perhaps at a cost.
Auletta writes that the Herald portrayed the conversation as a "shakedown," but he posits that the notes actually "suggest a contentious discussion." He also writes of an e-mail exchange he had with Herald reporter Marc Caputo, who says he found the story believable because he thinks Univision has become "so partisan that it would be willing to cross journalistic lines to have the opportunity to grill Rubio on immigration," referring to the network's full-fledged support for the Dream Act as an example of their bias.
There is a lot in the piece about the issue of illegal immigration, and the GOP candidates' famously tough rhetoric this campaign season about the issue (and how Rubio has moved to the right on the issue since his days as House Speaker in Florida) and how that might play out for them in the general election in November. And of course, the overarching theme that the rock-star Rubio is a classic choice to be a vice presidential contender, in part because of his Hispanic background.
Auletta writes this paragraph toward the end of his story, which seems to sum up what he believes is at work here:
Regardless of where you come down, Presidential debates on prominent media outlets are not usually boycotted because of somewhat overhyped news stories or murky civic debates. It seems much more likely that boycotting a debate on Univision was a convenient way for the Republican candidates to appease Senator Rubio and, at the same time, avoid engaging in a debate on the eve of the Florida primary that would likely inflame Hispanics. And there's little question that a debate sponsored by Univision, which Republicans now seem to view the way that Democrats view Fox, would have been much tougher than one sponsored by Telemundo."
Telemundo is the other Spanish-language channel available in most U.S. homes. Three Rubio allies (South Florida Congressman David Rivera, Florida House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Miami GOP Representative Erik Fresen) wrote a letter to the presidential candidates informing them of the alleged shakedown and suggesting they move their debate to Telemundo. Such a debate was to have taken place in December, but never did.
Although Republicans are cognizant of the fact that Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in the nation and thus they should want to appeal to them, their party's tough stance on illegal immigration, though hardly the most important issue for Hispanics in the U.S., is still hurting it.
A Pew poll released last week showed that two-thirds (67 percent) of Hispanic registered voters say they identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 20 percent say the same about the Republican Party.
And when asked which party has more concern for Hispanics, 45 percent say it’s the Democratic Party, while 12 percent say it’s the Republican Party. That's actually an improvement for the GOP from the 6 percent who said so in 2010.
(Update: The Herald's Marc Caputo writes about Auletta's story, and his response to it, on the paper's website).