Can the GOP Win Over Latinos?

Only if the party makes necessary changes in style and substance, talking to Hispanics and acting on issues that matter to the community.

Alfonso Aguilar is the Executive Director of American Principles Project's Latino Partnership and former Chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the George W. Bush administration.
National Journal
Alfonso Aguilar
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Alfonso Aguilar
May 7, 2014, 1:30 a.m.

Lati­nos are, without a doubt, today’s Re­agan Demo­crats. Their val­ues are con­ser­vat­ive val­ues. They can, in fact, be­come a great as­set to the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment. But, what is more, Lati­nos hold the math­em­at­ic­al key to vic­tory in a grow­ing slate of loc­al, state, and na­tion­al elec­tions.

The GOP’s 2016 can­did­ate can only win the pres­id­ency if he earns at least 40 per­cent of the na­tion­al Latino vote and sim­il­ar per­cent­ages in battle­ground states like Col­or­ado, Flor­ida, Nevada, New Mex­ico, North Car­o­lina, and Vir­gin­ia.

Is the GOP com­mit­ted to win­ning enough Latino voter sup­port to cap­ture the White House in 2016? If the an­swer is yes, then they need to do three things:

First, the Re­pub­lic­ans need to show up. The GOP and con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions need to ur­gently es­tab­lish a per­man­ent pres­ence in His­pan­ic com­munit­ies across the coun­try, es­pe­cially in those battle­ground states where the Latino vote is de­cis­ive. Re­pub­lic­ans can­not ex­pect to get Latino votes if they be­gin en­ga­ging Latino com­munit­ies only two months be­fore an elec­tion. This is not only in­ef­fect­ive, it’s very of­fens­ive to His­pan­ic voters who rightly feel that such an ap­proach amounts to simple pan­der­ing in a time of polit­ic­al need. Yet, this has been the stand­ard prac­tice of Re­pub­lic­ans for at least the past two pres­id­en­tial-elec­tion cycles.

The good news is that the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee is step­ping up its game early and has already es­tab­lished a net­work of cam­paign op­er­at­ives in key states that are pro­act­ively reach­ing out to Lati­nos. Moreover, there are na­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive Latino or­gan­iz­a­tions like the Amer­ic­an Prin­ciples Pro­ject’s Latino Part­ner­ship, the Libre Ini­ti­at­ive, and the Me­dia Re­search Cen­ter Latino, which launched last month.  

These or­gan­iz­a­tions are en­gaged in grass­roots work, try­ing to make in­roads with­in the com­munity, and en­cour­aging Lati­nos to sup­port con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ates and causes. The Me­dia Re­search Cen­ter Latino will also ag­gress­ively en­gage, mon­it­or, and cri­tique lib­er­al bi­as in Span­ish-lan­guage me­dia, an entry­way to mil­lions of Latino homes. That is in­creas­ingly im­port­ant work be­cause the Uni­vi­sion TV Net­work alone reaches 97 per­cent of all His­pan­ic house­holds in the coun­try.

Second, the GOP needs to lead on im­mig­ra­tion. Polls show that im­mig­ra­tion is not the most im­port­ant is­sue for Lati­nos, but it’s still of great sig­ni­fic­ance to them. If the GOP doesn’t get it right, Lati­nos are simply not go­ing to listen to any­thing else the party and its can­did­ates have to say, as at­tract­ive as their po­s­i­tions on a num­ber of oth­er is­sues may be. Even hav­ing a pres­ence in the Latino com­munity will mean noth­ing if Re­pub­lic­ans don’t deal with im­mig­ra­tion con­struct­ively.

As Sen. Rand Paul stated re­cently, “[Lati­nos are] not go­ing to care wheth­er we go to the same church, or have the same val­ues, or be­lieve in the same kind of fu­ture of our coun­try un­til we get bey­ond that [im­mig­ra­tion]. Show­ing up helps, but you got to show up and you got to say something, and it has to be dif­fer­ent from what we’ve been say­ing.”

Prop­erly ad­dress­ing im­mig­ra­tion doesn’t mean, as some ra­bid re­stric­tion­ists like to ar­gue, that the GOP has to move to the “left” on the is­sue. To the con­trary, the GOP should re­claim the im­mig­ra­tion is­sue based on the con­ser­vat­ive val­ues that it has al­ways de­fen­ded, like the cent­ral role of the fam­ily and the ef­fect­ive­ness of the free mar­ket.

After all, con­ser­vat­ives be­lieve that big gov­ern­ment is re­spons­ible for cre­at­ing the im­mense pop­u­la­tion of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants that live in Amer­ica today. Con­gress has ar­bit­rar­ily set up work-visa quotas that don’t re­flect the needs of our labor mar­ket. And since Amer­ic­an busi­nesses need for­eign work­ers to do labor-in­tens­ive jobs that Amer­ic­ans don’t want or for which there are no Amer­ic­ans of work­ing age to fill, for­eign mi­grants keep com­ing in il­leg­ally. Why should the gov­ern­ment tell a U.S busi­ness own­er who can­not find Amer­ic­an work­ers for his farm or fact­ory that he can­not bring the work­ers he des­per­ately needs from abroad?

On this is­sue, however, there has also been pro­gress. While House Re­pub­lic­ans don’t want to tackle im­mig­ra­tion re­form this year, as they are con­cerned that it may de­rail their chances of tak­ing back the Sen­ate later this year, there seems to be con­sensus among their ranks that they should take it on in 2015. Moreover, the House Lead­er­ship has pro­duced a set of im­mig­ra­tion prin­ciples to guide the de­bate which have been warmly re­ceived by most Re­pub­lic­ans mem­bers. They in­clude cre­at­ing more mar­ket-ori­ented guest-work­er pro­grams and a path to leg­al status for the un­doc­u­mented.

Fi­nally, the GOP must fol­low a broad in­teg­rated mes­sage. Con­trary to what many “es­tab­lish­ment” strategists would ar­gue, Re­pub­lic­ans are not go­ing to win the Latino vote just by talk­ing about a stat­ic set of eco­nom­ic is­sues, par­tic­u­larly small busi­nesses and en­tre­pren­eur­ship. Don’t get me wrong: this should be part of the pitch to Lati­nos. His­pan­ics are ex­tremely en­tre­pren­eur­i­al, as evid­enced by the fact that we are open­ing busi­nesses at a rate three times as fast as the na­tion­al av­er­age .

Non­ethe­less, the ma­jor­ity of Lati­nos are not busi­ness own­ers. They are em­ploy­ees who work for someone else, much like the ma­jor­ity of work­ing-class Amer­ic­ans. The GOP must ar­tic­u­late a more pop­u­list eco­nom­ic mes­sage that res­on­ates with middle- and low-in­come His­pan­ic fam­il­ies. The party would fare bet­ter with Lati­nos by show­ing how con­ser­vat­ive policies can help re­verse the rise in the price of day-to-day ex­penses, such as gas and food.

I be­lieve that Obama­care is now one of those pock­et­book is­sues that is be­gin­ning to rile up Lati­nos. They are com­ing to real­ize that there’s noth­ing free about the health care law, as many lib­er­als led them to be­lieve. Con­ser­vat­ives know that many are go­ing to face the bur­den of a new monthly pay­ment that they were not ex­pect­ing. And if re­cent stor­ies in The Wall Street Journ­al and USA Today are any in­dic­a­tion, many, per­haps even the ma­jor­ity, will have to pay high­er premi­ums for their health care cov­er­age.

It’s no won­der that ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll, only 47 per­cent of Lati­nos now sup­port Obama­care, down from 61 per­cent in Septem­ber of 2013. And the same share of Lati­nos — 47 per­cent — already dis­ap­prove of it.

In ad­di­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans should not aban­don so­cial is­sues. The ma­jor­ity of His­pan­ics are pro-life and be­lieve in tra­di­tion­al mar­riage and are turned off by the rad­ic­al and ag­gress­ive agenda of the Left.

The only way Re­pub­lic­ans can be­come vi­able again na­tion­ally is by bring­ing more Lati­nos in­to their ranks. This won’t be easy, but it’s not im­possible if Re­pub­lic­ans dir­ectly en­gage Lati­nos in their com­munit­ies with a broad mes­sage that is wel­com­ing of im­mig­rants, res­on­ates with work­ing-class His­pan­ics, and em­phas­izes the im­port­ance of faith and fam­ily. The 2016 elec­tion will show us if the GOP does what is needed to make sub­stan­tial in­roads with this key con­stitu­ency.

Alf­onso Aguilar is ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Amer­ic­an Prin­ciples Pro­ject’s Latino Part­ner­ship and former chief of the U.S. Of­fice of Cit­izen­ship in the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.


The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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