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.”