Republicans Look to Rebuild Their Traction With Hispanic Voters

Peter Slevin, Washington Post, February 21, 2010

Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican whose district ran along the Mexican border, won seven straight elections to the House by relying on retail politics in Hispanic communities where GOP candidates had rarely bothered to tread.

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“If you don’t go out and bring more Hispanics to our party, the math isn’t there to win, no matter what the other side does,” said Bonilla, who has argued the case in one-on-one meetings with Republican leaders in Congress. “If they’re too blind to recognize that, it’s their own selves doing them in.”

Bonilla should know. He lost in 2006 to another Hispanic candidate, a Democrat.

The Hispanic population is expected to increase by nearly 200 percent by 2050, with non-Hispanic whites accounting for about half the U.S. population, down from 69.4 percent in 2000. From 1988 to 2008, the number of eligible Hispanic voters rose 21 percent–from 16.1 million to 19.5 million.

“The numbers don’t lie,” said Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant. “If Republicans don’t do better among Hispanics, we’re not going to be talking about how to get Florida back in the Republican column, we’re going to be talking about how not to lose Texas.”

Fewer Hispanics view the Democratic Party favorably than did a year ago, according to NBC-Wall Street Journal polls, when they had recently voted in record numbers for Barack Obama. But by many measures, including candidate recruitment and vote totals, Republicans continue to struggle. The most vexing problem is the immigration debate, in which hard-liners and “tea party” activists have alienated many Hispanics with their harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.

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[Michael] Steele, the GOP’s first African American chairman, wants to broaden the party’s appeal. His approach centers on reaching Hispanics in more places, with what one aide called “real integration.” Steele banned the word “outreach” from his staff’s lexicon, saying it indicates that Hispanics and other minorities are not considered integral party members. {snip}

The Bush model

Roughly 2 million more Hispanics cast ballots in the 2008 presidential race than said they did four years earlier, according to an analysis of Census Bureau survey data by the Pew Research Center. The percentage of total votes that were cast by Hispanics doubled to 7.4 percent between 1988 and 2008, the center said.

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Bonilla, now a consultant dividing his time between Texas and Washington, said he has urged Republican leaders in Congress “not to forget” Hispanics: “Sometimes I’m concerned that there’s not more action. They’re absolutely in agreement, but once the next day begins, they’re distracted by bailouts and health care and cap-and-trade.”

Why GOP is falling short

Luis Saenz managed the 2006 reelection campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in 2006. He sees increasing inclusiveness among some GOP politicians, but he perceives “too much patronizing.” His counsel is grounded in fundamentals: “The efforts have to be constant, not just election year.”

The beginning of GOP success, Saenz said, is the answer to a riddle: “How do you get voters to say, ‘This party looks like me’? The Democratic Party has done a really good job of bringing everybody in. The Republican Party has to do a better job.”

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When pressed on the status of GOP efforts to find more of those faces, spokeswoman Angela Sailor said the party’s political and coalitions divisions are working with state parties “to recruit Hispanic candidates with an emphasis on local candidates.” Yet at the winter RNC meeting in Honolulu last month, how to attract Hispanic voters and candidates was not on the agenda.

Dan Bartlett, who advised Bush in Texas and Washington, said Republicans need to recruit well and build “an authentic relationship” with Hispanics. “The Hispanics are going to be a dominant political force in the state of Texas and around the country for the next 100 years, and the Republican Party’s blowing it,” he said. “There’s a real dearth of smart thinking on the Republican side of the aisle.”

Beyond the immigration issue, Hispanics were alienated by Republicans pushing for English-only policies and stringent law enforcement while opposing paths to legal residency and citizenship. Bonilla said it was a moment when “all of this came crashing backward.”

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Steele said the vitriol on immigration “harkens back, quite frankly, to the Southern strategy that the Republicans embraced in the 1960s, causing black Republicans to abandon the party.” {snip}

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