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."
Another D.C.-based group, The American Cause, chaired by Pat Buchanan, released a similarly defiant study this week arguing that the GOP needs to get tougher on immigration, not softer. The report, "Immigration and the 2008 Republican Defeat," which analyzes all of the Republican losses in 2008 House races, concludes that Republicans lost because they supported "amnesty" for illegal immigrations, while Democrats emphasized border security—a stance that proved popular with voters.
The Buchanan group, which describes itself as a promoter of "economic patriotism," offers a bleak prognosis for Republicans. Since the party has never won a majority of the Latino vote, it concludes, Republicans should be focusing their effort not on "reforming" immigration policy, but on stopping mass immigration altogether. "The Demographic changes made by mass immigration have been disastrous to Republicans and will be fatal if not halted," says a press release announcing the report, which urges the GOP to solidify its political base, not expand it. "Whatever gains, if any, pandering to Hispanics gives is greatly outweighed by loss of the White vote, which is more important."
Political observers on both sides of the aisle, meanwhile, were struck not just by the sudden resurgence of an issue that has spent several years off the political stage—but by its surprisingly shrill tones. Among some conservative groups, anti-immigrant sentiment is certainly alive and well. "Their whole political theory has been not to win the people in the middle but to win the hard-core Republican base," says Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group. These new studies, he says, reflect a fundamental split in the Republican Party that the election did nothing to resolve. "You have a growing number of thinkers and elders in the party saying 'We're going the wrong way,'" says Sharry. "But you have almost no one in the rank-and-file saying that."
It's no accident that the issue of immigration is flaring up again, of course. During the presidential campaign, Obama promised to tackle immigration reform in his first year as president, and political observers believe legislation could move to Capitol Hill again as soon as this fall. "The reason they're pushing back is they realize this election has been a game-changer on immigration," says Sharry. "The sleeping giant awoke."
Three million new Latino voters went to the ballot box this fall, redrawing the electoral map—and leaving many analysts wondering how Republicans can imagine a way forward, politically, that does not include Latino voters, and, by extension, immigration reform.
Many experts scoff at the argument made in the two new reports that immigration policy is somehow not important to Latinos. Though Hispanics, in the last year, have certainly rated the economy and jobs as two of their top concerns, polls show that immigration is never far from their minds. Nearly 90 percent of Latino voters in one poll conducted after the election said immigration was either "somewhat important" or "very important" to them.
There is abundant evidence, meanwhile, that Latino voters are moving away from Republicans, and toward Democrats, largely because of the GOP's association with anti-immigration hard-liners. More than 11 million Latinos voted in the election this fall, up from only 7.6 million in 2004. They proved decisive not just in heavily Latino swing states like Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada but also in previously solid red states like Indiana, where Obama won by a margin of only about 25,000 votes—largely because he dominated McCain among recent Latino immigrants.
The political calculus—for Latino groups, and for many moderate Republicans—seems clear. "There will be political consequences for our leaders who do not understand that we are sending a strong message through that turnout," Janet Murguía, president of the advocacy group National Council of La Raza, said earlier this month.
The question, now, is whether GOP leaders hear that message—and how they decide to act on it.