Five years after former President George W. Bush attracted nearly half of the Hispanic vote in the 2004 presidential election, Hispanic Republicans are worrying that support for the party among Latinos is in a free fall.
The mood was distinctly downbeat at times at a recent Capitol Hill gathering sponsored by the Republican National Hispanic Assembly (RHNA) on the “Future of Hispanics in the GOP.” For some, the basic question was whether there was any future to discuss.
Leading Hispanic Republican strategists say the natural attraction the party should enjoy with churchgoing, socially conservative Latino voters is being overwhelmed by a single issue: the party’s hard-line stance on illegal immigration.
“We know that the party will not recover its majority until we get this right,” said RHNA Chairman Danny Vargas.
Party leaders say they recognize the need to mend fences. According to exit polls, Democrats scored a net gain of 13 percent in the presidential election and 15 percent in House races between 2004 and 2008. Republican defections have been particularly severe in states where Hispanics make up at least 30 percent of the electorate, including Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico.
President Bush received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, compared with Sen. John Kerry’s 53 percent–a record showing for a Republican candidate. In 2008, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain received just 31 percent of the national Hispanic vote, compared to Mr. Obama’s 67 percent.
In 2004, Republicans held five of the nine congressional districts along the U.S.-Mexican border; in 2009, all nine seats are occupied by liberal Democrats.
“We need messengers to really capture that region–young, Hispanic, black, a cross section,” he said. “We want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles. But we want to apply them to urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”
Said Mr. McConnell, “In the last election, Hispanic voters turned out in far greater numbers for the Democrat candidates, and sadly, the party that was founded on the principle of racial equality attracted just 4 percent of the African-American vote in the last presidential election. These are not reasons to abandon the effort. They are reasons to work twice as hard.”
The backlash among legal Hispanic voters to the party’s policies to date “has destroyed conservative prospects in the Southwest, weakened them in the West, and wiped them out in New England,” [Richard Nadler, president of Kansas-based conservative think tank Americas Majority foundation] said.
Former Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen told the Capitol Hill forum the immigration issue had to be handled in a “rational, thoughtful way,” but said the party would do better to focus on economic and social issues as a way to woo Hispanic voters. But he said the party as a whole must continue to insist on securing the country’s borders against new illegal immigrants before any discussion on how to deal with illegals already here.