Republicans Have a Golden Opportunity to Win the Latino Vote

The contest between the political parties for the Latino vote in the 2012 election is now well underway.

It started in May when President Obama went to El Paso with a suitcase full of contradictions. Posing in front of a border wall, he assured a largely Latino crowd that he was enforcing immigration laws that require illegal immigrants to be deported while still committed to changing those laws so that more of them could stay. He also made clear that the focus of his administration was on removing so-called criminal aliens, and not hard-working people who are just trying to feed their families -- except, of course, when the focus is on boosting the administration deportation statistics by rounding up hard-working people who are just trying to feed their families.

Now Republicans are having their say and trying to convince Latino voters into giving them a chance at reclaiming the presidency. In what are expected to be the highly competitive states of Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado, the Republican Party has released a new radio ad in Spanish that tries to change the subject away from immigration to an area where some Republicans think they might get traction with Latino voters: cutting spending, preventing tax increases, and balancing the federal budget by not increasing the national debt limit. The ad -- which was put out by an outfit called Crossroads GPS, which was founded by Karl Rove -- features a woman who voted for Obama but now regrets it and can’t sleep because she worries about her children’s economic future.

Personally, I think it’s a good ad. Latinos care about runaway spending and tax increases as much as the next group. And bully for Rove for engaging the Latino community in the language that many of its members feel most comfortable, instead of simply writing off those votes as many Republicans tend to do because they don’t think they have a shot at winning over Latinos on any issue.

My one complaint is that, while I realize that Rove has to play the cards he’s been dealt, he’s smart enough to know he can’t duck the immigration issue -- no matter how much of a mess Republicans have made of it. Until that issue is addressed in a fair and reasonable way that combines enforcement with earned legal status for at least some illegal immigrants, Latinos simply will not give the GOP or any Republican candidate a fair hearing on any issue. The party brand is that damaged.

Ironically, Republicans have a strong case to make on immigration if only they choose to make it. They could start by pointing out the failings and dishonesty of the Obama administration, and then make clear that -- despite what you hear from some Republicans in states like Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina where lawmakers are eager to deputize local cops to enforce federal immigration law -- anti-illegal immigrant does not mean anti-Latino. Then they could spell out their own plans to provide their supporters in the business community with guest workers, and provide workers who are already here with a pathway to earned legal status.

Then and only then can Republicans hope to engage Latino voters on a host of issues on which the two might agree such as gay marriage, abortion, strong defense, lower taxes etc. And why is that? It’s because, whether Latinos are putting up with Democrats who take them for granted or Republicans who write them off, the single most important commodity to Latino voters is respect. They hunger for it, and they don’t get enough of it.

That’s why, for both parties, how they handle the immigration issue will do nothing less than define the nature of their relationship with the Latino community. If that relationship is based on deceit or demagoguery, then it won’t go anywhere. But if it’s based on respect, then anything is possible.

With the right message and right candidates, both parties have a shot at winning the support of Latino voters. And in a country that is becoming more Latino every day, and where the electorate adds half a million new eligible Latino voters every year, neither party can afford to squander that opportunity.