WASHINGTON—With his selection of Cuban-born Carlos Gutierrez to be his Commerce secretary yesterday, President Bush advanced what strategists say is a comprehensive effort to transform his success among Hispanic voters in this year’s elections into a long-term gain for Republicans.
Gutierrez, 51, is the second Hispanic to gain Bush’s nod for a Cabinet post since his re-election, after his selection of top White House lawyer Alberto Gonzalez, who is a Mexican American, for attorney general. Gutierrez would replace Bush’s Texas-bred confidant Donald Evans.
While Bush’s critics say he is practicing tokenism without offering Hispanics any progress on important issues like immigration, his allies say he is setting his party up to make substantial inroads among a vital and growing voting bloc, cutting into Democrats’ historic advantage.
Bush lost the Hispanic vote to Sen. John Kerry this year, with exit surveys showing the president won 44 percent to the Democrat’s 53 percent. Pollsters squabble about that margin, but virtually all concede Bush’s share of the Hispanic vote rose—some say by as much as nine points—compared to his performance in the 2000 election.
Strategists saw Bush’s gain as the start of a shift away from historical trends, in which Hispanics as a group traditionally backed Democrats because of their support for liberal immigration standards and social programs.
To many, it reflects the culmination of a decadelong quest by Bush, orchestrated by his political guru Karl Rove, to establish a firm national foothold among the Hispanic electorate, and a foundation for future Republican gains.
Prominent Hispanics who are close to Bush cheered Gutierrez’s appointment as proof the president is committed to offering their community an influential role in his administration. But some cautioned that Bush, who enjoys a personal tie to the voting bloc that dates to his days as governor of Texas, faces a challenge in capitalizing on his success for the benefit of future Republican candidates. Accomplishing that goal could be a vital element of Bush’s political legacy.
Hispanic leaders and strategists say Bush likely will seek more opportunities to hand prominent posts to Hispanic leaders, including possibly nominating a Hispanic for the Supreme Court, recruiting new political talent around the country, and pushing priorities they prize—including an immigration-reform proposal the president has long promised, but not yet delivered.
“Now it’s going to take a continuation of his message and an equal commitment by the state Republican parties to speak to this community and take on their issues,” said Mario Rodriguez, a California-based advertising executive who is the chairman of the Latino Coalition and a close ally of the president. “The template is there, and it’s not rocket science—it’s just honest caring about a community that is going to be such a large part of this country, and it’s only going to grow.”
“The Hispanic vote,” Rodriguez said, “has woken up.”
Liberal-leaning Hispanic groups that have faulted Bush for failing to prioritize their members’ causes have said they hope that Bush’s nominations presage a fundamental policy shift by his administration.
Lauding Bush’s selection of Gutierrez yesterday, Janet Murguia, the president of the National Council of La Raza, said the group’s members “are optimistic” that the nomination, coupled with that of Gonzalez, “will lead to a greater focus on some of the issues most pressing to the Latino community.”
But even if there is no radical policy shift, some Democrats say Bush and his political advisers have made great strides with Hispanic voters just by courting them as a swing constituency and giving influential jobs to their stars.
“These aren’t ‘Let’s find a Hispanic’ . . . nominees, they’ve gone out and found good people, qualified people, leaders in their fields,” said Joe Garcia of the New Democratic Network. “Hispanics don’t want to be appealed to as some minority group; they want to be appealed to as players.”