As the battle royale continues in Congress over immigration reform, moderate to conservative Republicans across the country are left with the question of how to appeal to this growing bloc of voters. Swing state Governors such as Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez have shown the way Governors and state officials can do so. Distance their rhetoric from the national party and promote dialogue on key issues. Also, understand that the issues that Hispanics care about are the same millions of other Americans care about.
For federal office Republicans this is not an easy feat. They have a much harder time distancing themselves from the brand and the rhetoric of their party. Case in points: In the Senate debate over reform, Senator Jon Cornyn (TX) offered an amendment on border security that was widely seen as a poison pill for the bill. In the House Rep. Steve King of Iowa coauthored a bill that would defund the popular Obama Executive Order allowing children of illegal immigrants to stay in the US. Both these actions do not endear the party to Hispanics.
There are notable examples of federal GOP officials who have found new ways to appeal to Hispanics. In Nevada, freshman Senator Dean Heller, who only won 26% of the Hispanic vote in 2012 (according to exit polls) has been holding town halls in Hispanic communities. His approval ratings among these voters is around 40% (well over his 2012 support). He also has been framing his language on the issue to be less about border security and more about worries on taxes and spending. In Illinois, Mark Kirk has taken much the same approach. Interestingly enough, Kirk voted against cloture on the bill but has hinted if the bill is tweaked he can support its final passage.
Of course two politicians out of a political party that has 279 members does not make a trend. In fact, according to some the trend is in the opposite direction.
The pull Representatives and Senators have to be feeling on the issue is telling. Conservative organizations and anti-illegal immigration politicians have aired ads assailing the Senate bill and in Tom Tancredo’s case in Colorado his gubernatorial campaign seems largely based on illegal immigration (again). On the other side are business and pro-immigration conservatives who air on the side of border security and citizenship/legal status after a number of years. This pull has not been good for the party.
The GOP released a lengthy 2012 election post-mortem where they identified several major issues with minorities: communication, ideology, rhetoric, and organizing. It seems in the immigration reform debate however all these failures are not being addressed. The rhetoric from the GOP sounds robotic, uncaring and anti-immigration. In contrast, Democratic rhetoric seems more measured and addresses the human aspect of the issue better.
Immigration reform seems to encapsulate the struggle the GOP faces with Hispanics and other minorities. A grassroots base that is pulling you to the right, forcing you to use language minorities find insulting and inflammatory. On abortion from gay marriage, issues one would think Hispanics agree with the GOP on, and to a degree they do, the hard right position many Republicans take turns Hispanics off. Even moderate politicians in the GOP who parse their words and are generally supportive of Hispanics in action and rhetoric suffer.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the West. In 2012 the GOP lost four swing districts in California. They lost a suburban/urban district in Nevada, did not compete in New Mexico’s two majority-minority districts and also lost three districts in Arizona. Indeed, the GOP in the West barely holds any districts with a Hispanic population over 20%. One of them, CA-31, which is a majority-minority district, held by anti-illegal immigration crusader Gary Miller, is likely to switch hands in 2014. A number of other GOP held districts are also seeing increasing minority participation in elections. The GOP is planning on targeting perennial swing districts in California based in the San Fernando Valley and a redrawn district that includes parts of San Diego (represented by a freshman). The GOP is running an openly gay candidate in the San Diego based district race. The GOP is also targeting all three Arizona based districts. How the GOP fairs in these races could say a lot about their 2016 chances to retake the White House and take/hold the Senate.
Yet, even if the GOP does find the political will to pass some form of immigration reform, the House and Senate versions are quite different, there is no guarantee they will improve among Hispanics in 2014 or 2016. The biggest win for the GOP if reform does pass is that the issue will be taken off the front-burner of politics and the debate will settle over issues better suited for the GOP: the debt, spending, taxes, entitlement reform, etc.
But until that time individual Republican members will have to build their own brands among Hispanic voters. It can be done, swing state Governors have shown the GOP how. Now federal Republican officials need to follow their examples.