Republican party leaders eyeing the 2012 election got a running start with Hispanic voters by hosting two high-profile conferences in as many months to court the fast-growing community.
But the gatherings, backed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Washington in December and co-chaired by former Gov. Jeb Bush in Miami earlier this week, laid bare the issue that could continue to bedevil the party’s success with Hispanic voters: immigration.
Though a slew of potential presidential candidates were invited to address the immigration reform-friendly audience in Miami, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota was the only one who showed up at the first Hispanic Leadership Network conference. He stuck to his standard stump speech on Friday, steering clear of diversity issues and mentioning immigration only briefly in the context of the “rule of law.’’
“It was a good speech, but this was a moment to embrace diversity and the Hispanic community,’’ said Republican fundraiser Ana Navarro, who advised former presidential nominee John McCain on Hispanic issues in 2008. “I wish he had spoken more about those issues.’’
Whether the Republican party succeeds in connecting with Hispanic voters, concentrated in battleground states like Nevada, Colorado and Florida, will help determine whether President Obama wins a second term in 2012 and the balance of power in Congress.
Speakers at both Gingrich’s Americano forum and the Hispanic Leadership Network roundly decried GOP opposition to legislation awarding citizenship to children of illegal immigrants in college or the military, as well as the vitriol that frequently roils the immigration debate. Some Republicans in Congress have suggested changing the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to discourage illegal immigrants from dropping “anchor babies’’ in the U.S.
"If you send the signals of 'them v. us' you're not going to be able to get the desired result," said Bush, whose brother, President George W. Bush, unsuccessfully pursued immigration reform. "Leaders have to lead and that means they have the responsibility of civility as well as having a tone that draws people toward our cause and not against it."
“We do have a challenge on the Hispanic vote,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican political consultant who worked on the Bush campaigns. “It is a language problem. It is a tonal problem.’’
The challenge for Republicans goes beyond tone, argued Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which favors allowing undocumented workers to earn citizenship. Many Republican activists criticize such legislation as giving amnesty to law breakers.
“The Hispanic Leadership Network Conference could be a forum for the GOP to start redirecting the ship, but only if they address the real elephant in the room -- the party’s position on comprehensive immigration reform,’’ Sharry said in a press release before the conference got underway. “The GOP’s ‘Latino problem’ is not going to be solved simply by changing rhetoric. It requires a change in policy too.”
But Republicans at the conference said the Democratic party shared in the blame for the absence of comprehensive immigration reform. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, noted that President Obama promised to tackle immigration reform in his first year in office. He didn't. The so-called Dream Act for the children of illegal immigrants wasn't brought up for a vote by Democratic leaders until the waning days of the last session of Congress.
“Sometimes I feel that Democrats don’t want comprehensive immigration reform because they want to use it as a wedge issue to hurt Republicans,’’ said former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado of California. "I’ll say this too -- I believe that my party hasn’t done a good job in reaching out getting that message out…This 14th Amendment talk bothers me. Not supporting the Dream Act bothers me.''
Added former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., “If we become perceived as an anti-immigrant party, America, being a country of immigrants, will never allow us to be the majority party.”
Exit polls show Hispanic voters favored Democrats by a 3-to-2 margin in the 2010 election. Participants in the conference, sponsored by former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman’s American Action Network and co-chaired by Bush and former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, said they were pleased to see the outreach long before the next election.
“This is not happening in September of 2012. It’s happening now,’’ said Bettina Inclan, former executive director of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. “You have to communicate with Hispanics, not preach to them. You don’t have to cater to Hispanics, but you do have to tailor your message.’’
The conference included panel discussions on free trade, border security, political messaging and education reform. Many participants argued that the GOP is the natural home for Hispanic voters, who tend to be socially conservative.
"If you believe in the conservative philosophy as I do, it would be incredibly stupid over the long haul to ignore the burgeoning Hispanic vote," Bush said. "They will be the swing voters, as they are today in the swing states. If you want to elect a center-right president of the United States, it seems to me you should be concerned about places like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Texas, places where but for the Hispanic vote, elections are won and lost."
Among the elected officials elected in the Republican wave of 2010 was Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, who vowed to model a Florida law after Arizona’s controversial crackdown on illegal immigration. Notably, when he welcomed the Hispanic group on Thursday, he did not mention the topic.