GOP’s Demographic Wager: Courting Latino Candidates

Some high-profile Republicans are adopting a softer vocabulary on immigration and trying to recruit more Hispanic candidates, a response to the party’s soul-searching about tactics that many strategists believe have alienated the country’s fastest-growing voter bloc.

In Texas, George P. Bush, the half Mexican-American son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has founded Hispanic Republicans of Texas, a political action committee to promote Hispanics running for state and local offices.

In California, GOP gubernatorial front-runner Meg Whitman, the former eBay Inc. chief executive officer, tells Hispanics she would have voted against a Republican-backed 1994 measure barring illegal immigrants from receiving social services.

And Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee and an opponent of past efforts to make a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, has been meeting with Hispanic leaders to find a new tone on that and other points of contention between Hispanics and conservatives.

For Republicans, such efforts carry risks, especially as conservative activists try to push GOP candidates to be more ideologically pure. Opposition to “amnesty,” a buzzword used by critics of proposals to legalize the 12 million illegal immigrants believed to be living in the U.S., remains a reliable applause line.

Nonetheless, many in the party have concluded that opposition to immigration legislation, a debate that is sometimes racially charged, has alienated millions of otherwise conservative Hispanic voters.

Republicans won just 31% of Hispanic votes in the 2008 presidential election, according to exit polls, down from more than 40% four years earlier, as the party took a hard line on immigration policy. That was a big factor in handing President Barack Obama his Electoral College victory and a seven-point win over Republican Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). If current demographic and voting trends continue, Hispanics’ growing share of the electorate could make Republican electoral college victories a near impossibility as early as 2020.

The Republican efforts could prove crucial in Hispanic-heavy states in this year’s elections. Party strategists fear a heavily Democratic Hispanic vote could hurt Republican chances in governors races in Texas, California and Florida, and make it harder for a Republican presidential nominee in the future to win states with fast-growing Hispanic populations.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who is coordinating some of the party’s internal discussions, called the tandem effect of rising Hispanic population and dwindling Republican support an “untenable delta.”

Mr. Gillespie blamed the problem on past Republican rhetoric. He said the GOP needed to think about “tone and body language” in discussing the issue. “We have to make clear to Latino voters that we care as much about welcoming legal immigrants into our country as we do about keeping illegal ones out,” he said.

Mr. Gillespie and other strategists say the party needs to win more Hispanic voters through economic and social issues. Focus groups in Florida and Nevada conducted by Resurgent Republic, a group co-founded by Mr. Gillespie, found big concerns about debt among Hispanics.

The Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a group set up by Princeton University Professor Robert George, a leading intellectual voice among Christian conservatives, plans to spend at least $500,000 spread over a handful of races to help pro-immigration Republican candidates, according to Alfonso Aguilar, a former Bush administration immigration official who runs the group. A key position for the group, said Mr. Aguilar, is legalizing illegal workers.

Another GOP-affiliated group, the Hispanic Leadership Fund, plans to target three races this year, supporting conservative Hispanic candidates and promoting other Republicans who back more liberal immigration laws.

Mr. Price, the Georgia lawmaker, said in an interview he began meeting with Hispanic groups in recent months to open a “line of communication so there is a reserve of trust.” But he said he wasn’t ready to talk about a path to legalization until he was convinced the U.S.-Mexico border is secured.

Javier Ortiz, a Georgia-based GOP consultant who grew up in Puerto Rico and has participated in the meetings with Mr. Price, said the congressman was “formulating his views on immigration through these discussions, and he hasn’t decided to go one way or the other. And that’s something I find encouraging.”

The new GOP language on immigration was evident in a recent appearance by Sarah Palin on Fox News. The former Alaska governor said that conservatives needed to be “welcoming and inviting to immigrants” and recognize that “immigrants built this great country.”

The party nonetheless remains home to conservatives who thwarted attempts by President George W. Bush to push the GOP to accept more liberal immigration laws.

To court anti-illegal immigration advocates, even the GOP’s most prominent Hispanic candidate of the year, Florida Senate hopeful Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American former state House speaker, has taken an immigration position to the right of his primary rival, Gov. Charlie Crist. He drew fire from Hispanic leaders, including some Republicans, when he argued recently that illegal immigrants should not be counted in the Census for purposes of drawing congressional and legislative districts.

Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, a group that advocates for strict limits on immigration, said strategists who urge a softer stance will be hard-pressed to find “any Republicans who want to stay in office who want to take their advice.”

A more conciliatory approach, Mr. Beck said, would turn off independent voters, who tend to support more restrictive immigration policies, particularly at a time of high unemployment, and whose movements back to the GOP in recent months are likely to spur big gains for the party this November.

The views of independent voters also complicate matters for Democrats, who are trying to retain Hispanic voters while wooing independents and satisfying labor unions, which are divided on immigration. Mr. Obama has said he supports an overhaul, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but the issue has been overshadowed by the White House’s primary focus on jobs and the economy.

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