In gauging the 2012 election, I’m watching where Latino conservatives are headed.
Maybe it’s because I’ve given up on Latino liberals who — faced with the uncomfortable but undeniable reality that a president they helped put in office has, in a desperate attempt to win favor with Anglo voters and independents, deported more than 1 million people in less than three years — have opted to stand by their man at the expense of their principles. At this point, they’re more “Democrat” than they are “Latino.”
Or maybe it’s because I haven’t given up on that idea that — despite the follies and foibles of Republican presidential hopefuls, and the ugly pandering to the right wing that goes on during the GOP primary — a sizable number of Latinos would vote to put a Republican in the White House if it were the right Republican with the right message on immigration.
Either way, I’m convinced that Latino conservatives will help decide the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.
People like Lionel Sosa, a Latino advertising executive and Republican campaign strategist based in San Antonio. Sosa, who has advised George W. Bush and John McCain on how to appeal to Latino voters, recently told the New York Times that there is one person who has blown any chance he had at winning Latino support: Mitt Romney.
“(Romney) can make as many trips to Florida and New Mexico and Colorado and other swing states that have a large Latino population, but he can write off the Latino vote,” said Sosa. “He’s not going to gain it again.”
For Sosa, and a lot of other Latinos I’ve heard from in recent weeks, what cooked Romney’s goose with Latinos was the craven and dishonest way that he tried to use the immigration issue to bludgeon his major opponent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. It was Romney who first brought up — during the CNN/Tea Party debate — the fact that Perry had signed a law allowing illegal immigrants who live in Texas and go to a state university to pay what other residents of the state pay: in-state tuition. And it is Romney who, having supported a comprehensive approach to reform that allows illegal immigrants to earn legal status, has now tried to remake himself as a fire-breather opponent of illegal immigration.
Latinos see that, and they resent being hoisted into the air and turned into a piñata for the benefit of someone’s White House ambitions. They know better than most Americans how complicated the immigration issue is, and they’re fed up with politicians who offer simple solutions that don’t hold water.
After the CNN/Tea Party debate, I got a phone call from a friend and Latino Republican political consultant who was incensed at how Romney had used illegal immigration as a weapon against Perry. “I’ll tell you what,” my friend said, “I have a new respect for Rick Perry for standing his ground. And I’ve lost all respect for Mitt Romney. If he’s the nominee, I’ll do everything I can to defeat that son-of-a-bitch!”
These are Republicans we’re talking about. You can imagine how poorly Romney would do with Latino independents and Democrats. Sosa is right. Romney is done with Latinos.
Here’s why that matters: There might be an estimated 12 million Latino votes cast next year. About 60 percent will likely go to Barack Obama; but that still leaves 40 percent on the table. Any Republican who could make a serious pitch for that support would be tough to beat. Conversely, any Republican who writes off those Latino votes will easily lose to Obama.
Besides, given the degree to which Obama has outraged Latinos with his dishonest and heavy-handed immigration enforcement policies, turnout on the left could be lighter than it was in 2008. If Republican conservatives turn out in large numbers, they could have a much greater impact on the outcome of the election than they are used to having.
That makes it all the more critical that Republicans nominate a candidate who Latino conservatives can get behind. And right now, everything I hear from around the country says that, for many Latino conservatives, the GOP field has narrowed to one name and one name only: Rick Perry.
I can relate. As a Latino voter who is conservative in some respects and who would easily consider supporting the right kind of Republican candidate for president next year, my message to the GOP is simple: “In this case of Texas Hold ‘Em, I’m all in. Either you go with Perry, or you can go to hell.”