California Republicans set out to woo Latino voters

California Republicans have rejected the idea of a tough immigration law like Arizona's and are reaching out to Latino voters. But they'll be carrying a lot of baggage on that uphill climb.

Chris Park/AP
From left to right, Tony Strickland, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, Damon Dunn, and Abel Maldonado thank supporters after speaking at the California Republican Party 2010 Fall Convention Aug. 20 in San Diego.

The California Republican Party came out of its semi-annual convention this past weekend high-fiving itself for fielding a diverse ticket to reach out to Latinos, a crucial voting bloc for November's elections. But can the California GOP overcome its own history on immigration issues – and that of the national party – enough to persuade a significant portion of Latinos to back their candidates?

The percentage of the California electorate that is Latino has more than doubled in the past 20 years – from 10 percent to 21 percent – but Republican candidates aren't getting very much of that pie.

The most recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll shows that 63 percent of the state's Latino voters are registered Democrats, with about 19 percent Republican.

“I’m the first to admit my party has not done a good job of communicating with Latino voters,” says Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, the first Latino Republican to hold statewide office in more than 100 years. Mr. Maldonado estimates that Republicans get as little as 20 percent of the Latino vote. But "we should be getting more than 50 percent," he says.

Maldonado says his personal tactic to change that is by "taking the Republican message directly to voters whenever possible” in his reelection campaign, he says. He spent much of last week campaigning in Latino-heavy East Los Angeles, speaking with chambers of commerce, and this week is headed to California’s Central Valley, where Latino unemployment is nearly 40 percent. “Some people may not like what I stand for, but showing up shows respect that we have not given them in the past. Showing up shows respect, and they accept that.”

The California GOP is banking on the hope that Latino voters are concerned about much more than immigration policy. At its convention last weekend, Republicans devised a platform its leaders hope will appeal to Latinos voters' two top concerns: education and employment, which Maldonado and others feel are a broader concern than immigration policy. Of Latinos, “17 percent are out of work,” says Crystal Feldman, press secretary for the California Republican Party, “and 50 percent don’t graduate high school. We think we are giving them a diverse slate of candidates that will face their issues head on.”

Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, a former CEO of eBay, and US Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, both tout job creation as a high priority.

But the idea that Republicans have embraced diversity is dismissed by Hal Dash, chairman and CEO of Cerrell Associates, a Democratic strategy consulting firm. “Two white women ... is a diverse ticket? I don’t think so,” says Mr. Dash. Though the GOP’s top eight candidates include three women, one black, and one Latino, ”the top of the ticket is what gets all the focus,” he says.

California Latinos' wariness of Republicans goes back to 1994, says Dash, when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson backed Proposition 187, a ballot measure that denied education and social services to illegal immigrants. The measure passed but was later overturned by courts.

“Republicans dug themselves a giant bombshell crater with Pete Wilson and [Prop.] 187, and have yet to dig out of it,” he says.

California Republicans' national party colleagues aren't making outreach to Latinos any easier of late. Arizona's passage of a tough law to crack down on illegal immigrants has divided the party and riled immigration rights groups. Ms. Whitman is reported to have nixed a California GOP resolution endorsing it.

“The California Republican Party failed to endorse Arizona’s controversial immigration law,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies. “In addition, since winning her party’s primary election, Whitman appears to be softening her stance toward immigration. She has said she opposes [Arizona's] SB 1070 and Prop. 187. These moves may be, at least in part, attempts to obtain more Latino support. Republicans are likely hoping Latinos will look at those decisions favorably,” she says.

The California GOP's marquee candidates face another challenge: identifying with and reaching Latino voters. Whitman and Ms. Fiorina both have piles of cash they are spending on their campaigns, but that could backfire, says Randy Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social in Pasadena, Calif.

“The question is: Are Republicans genuine in courting the Latino vote?” he says. “Actions speak louder than words, and thus Republicans have fallen short in truly outreaching and helping the Latino community.... The Latino electorate is more informed and aware of the Republican anti-immigrant stand,” says Mr. Ertll.

Republicans do not seem to know how to reach Latino voters, says Ertll, “and they continue to hire consultants and try to run token candidates – who many times are out of touch with their own communities.”

Comments Whitman and Fiorina made during their primary races aren't going to help them either. Candidates can’t make it past the primary unless they appeal to their more conservative base, says Dash, pointing to immigration. Two weeks before her primary, the Los Angeles Times quoted Whitman speaking out against amnesty for illegal immigrants, and the Associated Press reported that Whitman would ban the admission of undocumented students to state-funded colleges.

“Opponents to Whitman and Fiorina will have a million sound bites to choose from, because there was lots of immigrant bashing" leading up to the primary, says Dash.

The GOP might be waging an uphill battle, but it has shown it can appeal to Latino voters in the past, says Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration in national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the US.

“When Pete Wilson was spearheading the demonization of Latinos in California, George W. Bush was governor of Texas and was contemplating his approach to the White House. He realized the importance of reaching out to Latinos and newly naturalized Americans, and achieved high support from these communities," says Ms. Martinez.

"As the 2008 election proved, the Latino vote is important in diverse states like Indiana, North Carolina, Colorado, Florida, Arizona and New Mexico," she adds. "It’s hard to envision a GOP candidate for national office winning without appealing to a significant portion of the Latino vote.” [Editor's note: The original version has been changed to clarify comments from Ms. Martinez.]

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