Republicans Looking for a New Way to Win Over Hispanics

GOP officials are hoping that the party’s renewed focus on economic mobility will resonate with immigrant communities.

Rubio: GOP's Hispanic success story.
National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
July 27, 2014, 4:15 p.m.

Since los­ing the His­pan­ic vote by a whop­ping 44-point mar­gin in 2012, Re­pub­lic­ans have made little pro­gress in Latino out­reach. It’s look­ing in­creas­ingly un­likely that any form of im­mig­ra­tion re­form will pass through Con­gress, leav­ing it a thorny is­sue for Re­pub­lic­ans dur­ing the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. The GOP’s hard-liners on im­mig­ra­tion of­ten dom­in­ate the de­bate, and the cur­rent crisis on the bor­der has only mo­bil­ized the party’s im­mig­ra­tion-re­form skep­tics. Even as His­pan­ics aren’t thrilled with the pres­id­ent’s hand­ling of the is­sue, they still over­whelm­ingly sup­port Demo­crats in the midterms, 58 to 32 per­cent in a new Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey.

But Re­pub­lic­ans are quietly test­ing out an al­tern­at­ive ap­proach in their at­tempts to close the ra­cial di­vide: fo­cus­ing on pock­et­book is­sues that dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect first- and second-gen­er­a­tion His­pan­ic fam­il­ies. Call it the Ru­bio plan, since the Flor­ida sen­at­or has been spend­ing the last year test-driv­ing a po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial cam­paign mes­sage centered on eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity, col­lege af­ford­ab­il­ity, tack­ling poverty, and middle-class eco­nom­ic chal­lenges.

In an in­ter­view on Na­tion­al Pub­lic Ra­dio last week, Marco Ru­bio ar­gued that if Re­pub­lic­ans tail­or their policies to­ward work­ing-class voters, their mes­sage would auto­mat­ic­ally res­on­ate with many His­pan­ics. “The vast ma­jor­ity of a sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of Amer­ic­ans of His­pan­ic des­cent will vote hap­pen to be work­ing-class people who are des­per­ate to not only achieve the Amer­ic­an dream but leave their kids bet­ter off than them­selves,” Ru­bio told NPR host Steve In­s­keep.

If the mes­sage res­on­ates, it could change the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that im­mig­ra­tion re­form is the only way of reach­ing out to dis­af­fected His­pan­ic voters. If not, it could ce­ment the party’s prob­lems broad­en­ing its co­ali­tion ahead of a crit­ic­al pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

“Every ex­per­i­ence that nearly every Amer­ic­an has had dur­ing the eco­nom­ic de­cline — that’s the ex­per­i­ence of every im­mig­rant and their chil­dren. They leave their coun­try and ad­opt a new one for that hope for a bet­ter eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity,” said Re­pub­lic­an strategist Joanna Bur­gos, a former Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee of­fi­cial. “To win over His­pan­ics, you have to show you’re a can­did­ate that cares about the com­munity. Show they’re a nat­ur­al part of your cam­paign, and you’re not just spit­ting out some talk­ing points to win their votes.”

In many ways, what lead­ing Re­pub­lic­ans are talk­ing about is akin to the “com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vat­ism” mes­sage that George W. Bush cam­paigned on in the 2000 elec­tion. Bush was broadly sup­port­ive of im­mig­ra­tion — fam­ously say­ing “fam­ily val­ues do not stop at the Rio Grande” — but also used his re­cord on edu­ca­tion and sup­port for faith-based ini­ti­at­ives, along with his strong re­la­tion­ship as gov­ernor with the Texas Latino com­munity, to win 44 per­cent of the His­pan­ic vote that year.

In­deed, edu­ca­tion was an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated is­sue that helped win Bush more His­pan­ic sup­port than any oth­er re­cent GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee. Bush cam­paigned on his edu­ca­tion re­forms in Texas, fre­quently lament­ing the “bigotry of low ex­pect­a­tions” as­sumed for in­ner-city stu­dents. His first ma­jor le­gis­la­tion as pres­id­ent was the No Child Left Be­hind ac­count­ab­il­ity bill, which passed with bi­par­tis­an sup­port. These days, former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush talks as much about edu­ca­tion re­form as im­mig­ra­tion as he mulls over a pres­id­en­tial bid.

For His­pan­ic im­mig­rants, edu­ca­tion is an eco­nom­ic is­sue; it’s their tick­et in­to the middle class. It’s no co­in­cid­ence that in the Flor­ida gov­ernor’s race, the state Re­pub­lic­an Party has aired ads fo­cused on GOP Gov. Rick Scott’s edu­ca­tion re­cord, in­clud­ing one with Span­ish-speak­ing fe­male teach­ers laud­ing the pay raises he se­cured. Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky un­veiled his edu­ca­tion agenda at the Urb­an League on Fri­day, where he pro­moted charter schools, vouch­ers, and school choice. The suc­cess­ful trans­form­a­tion of the New Or­leans school sys­tem, decim­ated by Hur­ricane Kat­rina and re­formed from scratch, is likely to be a cent­ral pil­lar in Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal’s cam­paign mes­sage.

“Edu­ca­tion is an is­sue that polls sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter with His­pan­ics. Every child of every im­mig­rant is in the United States to get an edu­ca­tion to have a bet­ter eco­nom­ic fu­ture. It’s the ma­jor reas­on why they come to the United States,” said Bur­gos.

It’s not only re­form-minded Re­pub­lic­ans who be­lieve that there has been a mis­placed em­phas­is on im­mig­ra­tion as the only way to at­tract His­pan­ic voters. The cent­rist Demo­crat­ic think tank Third Way is­sued a re­port in May titled “Amer­icaña: Bi­par­tis­an Mis­in­ter­pret­a­tion of ‘His­pan­ic Amer­ica,’ ” ar­guing the same point. “[Im­mig­ra­tion] does not reg­u­larly rank high on the list of pri­or­it­ies with­in the com­munity, and it cer­tainly should not be seen as the single de­fin­ing is­sue for His­pan­ic voters,” the re­port reads. It cites a Decem­ber 2013 Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey, where im­mig­ra­tion ranked fifth as a top pri­or­ity among Lati­nos, be­hind jobs, edu­ca­tion, and health care.

“What a lot of Re­pub­lic­ans mis­un­der­stand about the His­pan­ic com­munity is, they as­sume they’re the 47 per­cent. They as­sume they’re poor people who are on gov­ern­ment pro­grams,” said the re­port’s au­thor, Michelle Diggles. “The same type of ideas that you’d use to ap­peal oth­er Amer­ic­ans, to white middle-class Amer­ic­ans, is also what His­pan­ic Amer­ic­ans want. We have to stop act­ing like they’re a dis­tinct group that doesn’t share com­mon Amer­ic­an val­ues.”

That’s one of the biggest dif­fer­ences between Ru­bio’s out­reach, which has been fo­cused on middle-class Amer­ic­ans, and sev­er­al of his pro­spect­ive 2016 chal­lengers, whose at­tempts at win­ning over minor­ity voters have fo­cused on poor Amer­ic­ans. House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an un­veiled an an­ti­poverty plan Thursday at the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, in line with his high-pro­file out­reach to strug­gling minor­ity com­munit­ies. Rand Paul has cri­ti­cized overly pun­it­ive drug-sen­ten­cing guidelines and elim­in­at­ing vot­ing rights for felons in a bid to ex­pand his ap­peal bey­ond liber­tari­an-minded Re­pub­lic­ans.

Former Amer­ic­an Con­ser­vat­ive Uni­on Chair­man Al Carde­n­as said that many of the GOP’s prob­lems win­ning over His­pan­ic voters stem from prob­lem­at­ic out­reach as much as their policy po­s­i­tions. He ar­gued the party needs to do a bet­ter job high­light­ing their His­pan­ic elec­ted of­fi­cials, giv­en there are more Latino Re­pub­lic­ans serving as gov­ernors and sen­at­ors than Demo­crats. He praised the Re­pub­lic­an Party com­mit­tees’ re­cent ef­forts in hir­ing more minor­ity staffers, in­clud­ing His­pan­ic field or­gan­izers and His­pan­ic me­dia spe­cial­ists, while cau­tion­ing that more needed to be done on that front.

“A lot has to do with the nom­in­ee we se­lect, the skill set they have ad­dress­ing the His­pan­ic com­munity, and the qual­ity of the staff the nom­in­ee sur­rounds him­self with,” Carde­n­as said. “Na­tion­al can­did­ates need to spend more time court­ing the His­pan­ic com­munity as they travel across the coun­try. We cer­tainly need to im­prove the schedul­ing of sig­ni­fic­ant spokes­men for the party.”

Des­pite the high-pro­file ef­forts to broaden the GOP’s co­ali­tion, few Re­pub­lic­ans in­volved with minor­ity out­reach are op­tim­ist­ic about where the party stands. At­tempts to push an an­ti­poverty agenda has been ad­op­ted by sev­er­al na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an fig­ures, but ig­nored by the party’s con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship and the con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots. Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors with suc­cess­ful re­cords on edu­ca­tion re­form have been over­shad­owed lately by the grass­roots back­lash against Com­mon Core stand­ards. The new­found fo­cus on bor­der se­cur­ity has raised the risk that a Re­pub­lic­an will make an in­sens­it­ive com­ment that will draw at­ten­tion and ali­en­ate His­pan­ics.

For every step for­ward, Re­pub­lic­ans fret, it feels like the party is tak­ing two steps back­wards. In­deed, it may take a pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee cam­paign­ing on an in­clus­ive plat­form for the en­vir­on­ment to change sig­ni­fic­antly.

“We’ve made baby steps, but we can’t be proud of the baby steps we’ve done,” said Bur­gos. “Be­cause there are still leaps to do.”