Republicans and Latino Voters: Has the GOP Shifted on Immigration Reform?

Some blamed losses in the fall on losing support from Latino voters, among other groups.

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After their dramatic losses in the fall elections, Republican leaders spent weeks publicly flogging themselves not just for losing the support of millions of Reagan Democrats and suburban moms—but for pushing away Latino voters, in particular, one of the country's fastest-growing demographic groups.

Many placed the blame for the loss on conservatives in their own party, pointing to the heated Republican opposition to a series of failed immigration reform bills in 2007. "[T]he very divisive rhetoric of the immigration debate set a very bad tone for our brand as Republicans," Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, said after the election. "There were voices within our party, frankly, which if they continue with that kind of rhetoric, anti-Hispanic rhetoric...we're going to be relegated to minority status."

From Karl Rove to Colin Powell, GOP leaders agreed: The numbers didn't lie. In November, 68 percent of Latinos, who made up nearly 1 in 10 voters overall—and whose percentage of the electorate is climbing—supported Barack Obama over John McCain. The gains made among Hispanics by George W. Bush, who won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, had disappeared. "We have to reach out to Hispanics," said John Ensign, a Republican senator from Nevada, summing up what appeared to be the GOP's new conventional wisdom.

This week, though, some Republicans, including Ensign himself, have shown that not all conservatives have changed their tune on at least one issue important to Latinos—immigration—nor, it would seem, do they intend to. As the candidates for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee continued to try to out-conservative each other ahead of today's party officer elections, two new reports from right-wing think tanks demonstrate that the battle for the soul of the Republican Party is far from over—arguing not only that Republicans should stick to their guns on immigration, but that the Latino vote is already lost to the GOP.

Ensign, for one, found himself taking a familiarly hard line earlier this week during a vote on a government healthcare program for low-income children. Seemingly abandoning his nascent Hispanic outreach efforts, he opposed a measure that would have removed a five-year waiting period before children of legal immigrants can access the program. "It would seem to me," Ensign said, "that we are giving more incentives for folks to come to the United States, not just to participate in the American dream but to come to the United States to get on the government dole." Two other high-ranking Republicans, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah, filed amendments that would also have eliminated the provision.

As eyebrows went up once again in the Latino community, two conservative organizations released studies with very different takes on the election than the one offered by GOP leaders in the fall.

First, the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports severe restrictions on immigration, published a report which concludes that the GOP's stance on immigration isn't actually what hurt the party with Hispanic voters. In "Latino Voting in the 2008 Election: Part of a Broader Electoral Movement," James Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, argues that the Republican party gave up ground in the election across many demographic groups—white males, for example—and that Latinos, like all voters, were much more concerned with the economy than with immigration.

"There is little evidence that immigration policy was an influential factor in Latinos' choice between the two candidates once basic party predispositions are taken into account," the report says. Gimpel dismisses the notion that Republicans might be able to woo Latinos by offering McCain- or Bush-style immigration reform. "As long as Latinos remain in lower income brackets," he says, "an outcome virtually assured by sustained high levels of unskilled immigration, the Democrats will continue to maintain their lopsided edge."