How can Republicans win back Hispanic voters? According to Reince Priebus, they need to study how Congressman Steve Pearce did it.
"When a conservative like Steve Pearce in New Mexico wins in a predominantly Latino district, we need to glean the lessons of his approach," said Priebus, who on Monday unveiled the findings of his committee's Growth and Opportunity Project, a comprehensive list of recommendations for the GOP to avoid a repeat of last election’s sharp setback.
The example works well enough, at least at first. Pearce represents the southern half of New Mexico, along the border of Mexico, but still won reelection last year with nearly 60 percent of the vote. A high-profile story in the Wall Street Journal last week detailed his personal and assiduous outreach to Latinos, explaining how those efforts helped him attract those voters even as they abandoned the rest of the GOP in droves. He was able to do so, the paper wrote, despite his outspoken conservatism.
Dig deeper, however, and it becomes less clear if the congressman is the perfect model for Republicans trying to court Hispanics. For one, he’s not always been so successful among those voters. When Pearce left his seat to run statewide in 2008, Democratic Sen. Tom Udall beat him among Latinos by 40 percentage points -- similar to the margin Mitt Romney lost by last year.
And his 2012 performance isn't quite as impressive under scrutiny, either. New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District, despite its large Hispanic population, leans right -- a DCCC aide said President Obama won only 46 percent of the vote there. His opponent that year, a former part-time teacher, was underfunded and a first-time candidate.
And Pearce himself, if not quite a hardliner in the Steve King-mold, doesn't back a path to citizenship that's likely to be included in a bipartisan Senate version of immigration reform. "If you want to stay in the country and work, he's in favor of some sort of guest-worker program, to come out of the shadows and pay taxes," said Eric Layer, spokesman for the congressman. "If folks do want to become citizens, the congressman believes that process needs to begin back in their home countries."
That stance has some New Mexico political watchers questioning whether Pearce can continue to hold his seat as more Latinos are added to its voter rolls. He might not be in danger next year, but demographic changes there could eventually sweep him away.
"The rumblings over Pearce's alleged appeal to Hispanics does raise the question of what is happening in the southern district," wrote Joe Monahan, who runs the political site New Mexico Politics. "It is getting more Hispanic and Dems think they might have a shot at taking it later in the decade."
Monahan, who wrote his story in response to the Journal profile, added: "Steve is a respected, authentic voice of unapologetic conservatism. There are many good things to say about him, but to cast him in the role of recruiter for the Hispanic vote is like asking a pacifist to recruit Marines."
UPDATE: There are key counterarguments to those points against Pearce's efficacy with Hispanics. Pearce's camp argues that his poor statewide showing in 2008 actually reinforces the value of the relationships he has built in his 2nd District. Pearce's image and financial muscle suffered during a tough GOP Senate primary in 2008, and he didn't have time or resources to introduce himself to voters the same way he had at home. Meanwhile, the Republican attempting to hold Pearce's district -- who also didn't have the benefit of cultivated relationships with the Hispanic community -- fell to Democrat Harry Teague. Two years later, Pearce reclaimed his old seat with the help of his old constituents.
Of course, the national political mood, which leaned heavily against House Republicans in 2008 and heavily against House Democrats in 2010, also played a role. But there's certainly an argument that the 2008 election results backhandedly demonstrate the value of Pearce's diligent outreach work, during which he regularly speaks to Hispanic groups that other Republicans ignore. Though his statewide loss in 2008 featured exit poll crosstabs similar to what Romney's were in 2012, this year, the congressman significantly outperformed Romney on the home turf Pearce has cultivated for the past decade.