While Republicans are still licking their wounds from the November defeat, they continue to discuss, blog, twitter, and text what it will take to win back seats and the majority in Congress. Part of the problem in 2008 was Republicans’ difficulty in winning over minority voters who are a bigger and bigger share of the electorate. In particular, the GOP lost ground with Hispanics in 2008. This contributed to Republican losses in Congress and the Senate and to Senator McCain’s disappointing results with non-white voters (receiving only 31 percent of the Hispanic vote).
Newly elected Republican Chairman Michael Steele says he has a vision to address this problem. He wants Republicans to highlight and promote the entrepreneurial spirit — the same spirit instilled in Hispanics that drives them to create small businesses. He also wants to focus on Republicans’ education and school choice agenda, which he contends will appeal to voters of all backgrounds, including Hispanics who view education as the avenue to success in America.
On February 19, the Hispanic Leadership Fund and Republican National Hispanic Assembly held a forum in Washington, D.C., entitled, “The Future of Hispanics in the GOP.” One of the panels included former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and a brief appearance by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. Most of the forum was a bleak numbers recitation revealing how poorly Republicans have fared with Hispanics in the last two election cycles. The numbers don’t lie; Hispanic voters overwhelmingly went with Barack Obama in November.
It is surprising to some extent that McCain — a senator from a border state with a rising population of Hispanic voters who historically had supported him — did so poorly with that constituency. Everyone knows how controversial immigration policy can be and Senator McCain, perhaps not surprisingly, backed away from the issue. As a result, voters were left with the impression that the Republican Party was opposed to immigration.
But Hispanic outreach by Republicans has been problematic for some time now. For years, I have been following political events catering to Hispanics on both sides of the aisle. You have your mariachi band, margarita machine (virgin, of course), and chips and salsa. Is that what we are to you? My mother who immigrated to the United States from Mexico loves mariachi music, but I despise it.
Most first and second generation Americans honor the culture and heritage of their parents’ native homeland, but that does not mean I have to behave as if I am from another country. So playing “La Bamba” in the background of a political rally means you understand us? Even I don’t understand all of us. Hispanics or Latinos come from over 20 countries in Central and South America, not to mention our neighbor Mexico.
Ask me what is important to Puerto Ricans and I might say statehood; to Cubans, it might be regime change. However, these are just assumptions because I don’t know. What’s important to a Mexican-American in Arizona is going to be different for a Mexican-American in North Carolina. We are not monolithic and will never be a voting bloc. Like other voters, we reward candidates who campaign in our communities, present an appealing message, and show respect and affinity for our members.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan captured 37% of the Hispanic vote and in 2004 George W. Bush garnered 44% of the Hispanic vote. He even tried his Spanish at times, which was always good for a laugh. But Republicans can’t hide a simple truth: the party has only four Latino members of Congress. Moreover, that number will decrease by one when Senator Mel Martinez retires his seat in Florida in 2010. “It is absolutely abhorrent that we do not have one Republican Hispanic member of Congress in states like California, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada,” says Mario Lopez, director of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, which was created in 2008 to address minority recruitment and training of candidates.
Republicans need to make a concerted effort to recruit candidates that reflect a diverse party. With some help, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio may be the Senate candidate in Florida in 2010. However, Republicans can’t escape the fact that they need to address the issue of immigration. The components of an immigration policy that is both responsible and politically effective aren’t difficult to put together. The violence currently taking place on both sides of the border is a national security issue. Rampant kidnapping, narcotics smuggling, and arms trafficking takes place on a daily basis and must be stopped.
Once the border is better secured, Republicans can address the 12 to 14 million undocumented workers in our country. Those who have committed crimes here must be sent back to their home country immediately. But individuals who have been in the country and who have been paying taxes and working hard (and perhaps have children here) should have a way to continue contributing to society. While penalties may be appropriate for illegally entering the country, there is simply no viable or politically acceptable means of conducting a mass deportation. Republicans can also address penalties for employers who hire illegal workers and institute a verification system. Recruitment and development of policy positions with appeal to Hispanics are a prerequisite for better electoral results. And a respectful and constructive approach to immigration must be part of the GOP agenda.
Republicans still have a long way to go if they hope to win back the Hispanic vote. Like General Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Pessimism never won any battle.” The path will be difficult, but once Republicans manage to construct an effective message with effective messengers, perhaps we will no longer have to listen to mariachi music.