LOOKING FOR HELP
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a perennial draft choice for president, is one of the few Republican figures with strong credentials in both conservative and Hispanic circles. It wasn’t until the homestretch of the race that Romney softened his tone on immigration and aired ads promising “to achieve permanent solutions for undocumented youth.” Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who also served on the ticket’s Hispanic advisory board, said, “It is absolutely ridiculous that we force a candidate to be so far to the right, and then in the general election, they have to move to the center. The people who are running the show, the so-called base who is writing the platforms, are the extreme Right.”
One advantage for the party seeking the Hispanic community’s good graces is a stable of high-powered, Spanish-speaking elected officials, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada; and newly elected Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Rubio, also viewed as a top contender for the nomination in 2016, said in a statement responding to the election, “The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.”
Romney and his allies were vastly outspent on Spanish-language advertising; one media tracking source estimated they spent $8.6 million while Obama and Democratic groups invested at least $14.6 million. This is not uncharted territory for Republicans; President Bush made inroads with Hispanic voters with uplifting ads that touted his party’s shared values. But airing more ads and talking more politely to Hispanic voters isn’t enough, said Terry Nelson, who served as Bush’s political director in his 2004 campaign. Bush’s outreach was backed up by policies that would have allowed illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.
“There’s room for improvement in our efforts on Spanish-language radio and television, but, fundamentally, we have to address the policy issues or it’s going to be difficult to compete for votes in this community,” Nelson said.
An ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions poll on the eve of the election found that 74 percent of Hispanics thought Romney didn’t care or was outwardly hostile to the Latino community. Sixty percent said they knew undocumented immigrants. The economy and job creation was the top issue, followed by immigration reform, education, and health care.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who won his Senate bid on Tuesday, sponsored an immigration-reform bill, but he was forced to abandon his stance when the party’s base raised objections. In a debate with his Hispanic Democratic opponent, Richard Carmona, last month, Flake said, “We beat our head against the wall and came to realize in the end that until we had a secure border nobody will trust the government [to fix immigration].... That’s a pragmatism. Sometimes, in a wash, you have to take half a loaf. You just can’t take an ideological position and run with it.”
Part of the GOP’s challenge in nominating a candidate with more-moderate positions on issues such as immigration is that the Republican primaries are dominated by white, religious voters. Self-conscious about his previous support for abortion rights and gay rights, Romney was anxious to toe the party line in the 2012 campaign.
“We need someone who can stand up to the angry voices in our party,” said Martinez, who served on Romney’s Hispanic advisory board and emphasized that he was not criticizing the nominee.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a leading Republican voice against immigration reform in Congress, rejected the notion that the issue offered the party a pathway to the Hispanic vote. “That’s a Democratic Party tactic, to divide people down the lines of race for political gain,” King said. “What we have to make clearer is our opposition to debt and deficits and that borrowing against our children’s future is immoral. I don’t think we need to become more like liberals.”
King is not alone in the postelection debate about the party’s direction. While some leaders are calling for a more mainstream agenda, others are arguing that the party needs to adopt an even stricter posture on fiscal and social issues. The Tea Party Patriots this week called Romney “a weak, moderate candidate, handpicked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment of the Republican Party.” Concerned Women for America President Penny Nance said in a statement, “The Republicans’ insistence in unilateral disarming on social issues means that only the Left is discussing abortion and marriage. Refusing to discuss this important issue left their candidates unprepared to intelligently engage on life.”
But the failure of Republicans to secure two winnable Senate seats belies that logic. Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana fell short amid fierce criticism of comments they made about rape and abortion. Democrats pilloried Romney for not denouncing Mourdock and for opposing government funding for Planned Parenthood and Obama’s initiative to require employee health insurance plans to cover birth control. The attacks seemed to work. Women voters favored Obama 55 percent to 43 percent. The gender gap was even wider among unmarried women, who preferred Obama by more than 2-to-1.
Indeed, Akin’s and Mourdock’s woes revealed a problem larger than Romney. The GOP lost Senate seats in Massachusetts, Maine, and Indiana, and Senate Democrats won closely contested races in North Dakota, Montana, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In an election in which Republicans were gunning to take control of the Senate, Democrats increased their majority by two seats.
“I thought this was going to be a 50-50 race, and instead it was a tsunami,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “The losses across the country in federal and state races—it’s a tsunami that none of us expected. There are glaring demographic shifts in this country that will not allow the Republican Party to compete unless immediate attention is paid.”
This article appeared in print as "Color Scheme."
This article appears in the Nov. 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.