Can the GOP, and Mitt Romney, reach Latino voters before it's too late?

The GOP is lagging dangerously in its appeal to Latino voters, some party leaders fear, and Mitt Romney's poll numbers are sounding alarm bells. The issue is not just message, but policy.

Lynne Sladky/AP
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney points to the photographer as he and vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan, (r.), pose for a group photo with campaign staff before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday.

When Hispanic megastar Marco Rubio ascends the stage at the Republican National Convention Thursday night to introduce Mitt Romney, an issue that poses an “existential” threat to the GOP, in the words of one party leader, will be in full view in prime time: Can the party reach Latino voters before the fast-growing bloc relegates Republicans to a perpetual minority for the next generation?

Distressed conversations about the party’s inability to win over Latino voters have been a constant, so far, at the convention. Everywhere, that is, except at the podium at the center of the Tampa Bay Times forum.

And the topic of immigration, an emotional issue that resonates deeply for Latinos, has been mentioned from the convention’s dais only twice: Once by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has enacted tough immigration measures in her state, and once by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Latino voters played an important role in fueling President Obama’s victory over Sen. John McCain in 2008, when Mr. Obama claimed

67 percent of the Latino vote to Senator McCain’s 31 percent. Since that time, the Latino share of the national vote has grown by 25 percent, to 8.7 percent of the popular vote.

The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC/Telemundo poll, however, puts Romney at just 23 percent support among Latinos.

“Where [Romney’s] numbers are right now," said GOP strategist Ana Navarro, "he should be pressing the panic button."

The question for Romney is simple, said Ms. Navarro: “If he doesn’t beat McCain’s numbers, he doesn’t win.”

And that’s only this election cycle. Longer-term, to describe the party’s political challenges as “daunting” is understating the problem many-fold.

Every month for the next 20 years, 50,000 Latino voters will turn 18 – the equivalent of adding the entire state of Vermont to voter rolls each year. Hispanics already make up 40 percent of the population of Texas, and are pushing 30 percent in Nevada and north of 20 percent in Colorado.

Without Hispanic support, “Texas is one bad political environment away from being a presidential swing state,” says Chris Jankowski, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee that will put some $3 million behind more than 100 Latino candidates for state legislatures during the 2012 election cycle.

A growing consensus

Party leaders from President George W. Bush’s political mastermind Karl Rove and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to former Republican National Committee chairman and current senior Romney adviser Ed Gillespie all agree: The party cannot go on without making serious inroads into the Latino community.

“The Republican Party can’t do with a dynamic, growing part of the electorate like it’s done with the African-American vote, where it found itself in a place where we get five percent we consider ourselves fortunate, 10 percent we’re thrilled, 13 or 14 percent and we’re ecstatic,” Mr. Rove said.

Romney needs to dig deep into Hispanic advertising and television markets, Navarro advises, in order to begin clawing his way back.

There are signs that the Romney campaign is taking the task seriously: It unveiled two Spanish language ads during the convention, gave prime speaking roles to a trio of Hispanic Republican governors and Senator Rubio, and even Romney’s Spanish-speaking son, Craig, gave an address on the convention’s final night.

Yet some observers say they would be surprised to see Romney wade deeply into immigration specifically.

“I think he’s decided he’s going to deal with this issue as president and not as a candidate. And that’s probably smart politics frankly,” said former Senator and Republican National Committee Chairman Mel Martinez. Romney’s plan is “don’t talk about immigration, but somehow find a way to connect with Hispanic voters.”

During the 2012 cycle, Team Romney’s appeal to Latinos has been based on Romney’s economic program, emphasizing that the bloc ranks the economy as its top voting issue and that 10 percent of Latinos are unemployment, two percentage points above the national average.

What seems to be the best-case scenario for the Republican Party this time around is that Latinos, dispirited by Obama’s broken promise of immigration reform in his first year in office and hard-hit by the economy, simply stay home.

“This election is about economics, and these groups have been hit the hardest,” House Speaker John Boehner said at a lunch hosted by The Christian Science Monitor on Monday. “They may not show up to vote for our candidate, but I would suggest to you that they will not show up to vote for the president.”

Strategist Rove echoed those remarks earlier the same day, predicting that the 2012 cycle could see flat to declining Latino voters “for the first time in modern history” because of a lack of enthusiasm.

Pointed rhetoric on immigration

But Romney and the Republican Party face serious challenges to closing the gap with Latinos that aren’t going to be fixed this cycle. A vocal portion of the party’s base remains steadfast in supporting policies and rhetoric that Hispanics find offensive.

That was on display during the primary when Romney used immigration issues – such as criticizing Texas Gov. Rick Perry for allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition – to score points with conservative Republicans like Ruby Robinson of Brunswick, Ga.

Ms. Robinson, a district Republican chairwoman and a delegate to the national convention, said she was “not worried” about the need for the GOP to attract Latino voters in the future and lauded those like South Carolina Gov. Haley for taking tough immigration measures.

Some of the same pointed rhetoric on immigration can be found in the party’s official platform, which opposes “any form of amnesty” for illegal immigrants, offers support for “humane procedures to encourage illegal aliens to return home voluntarily” – an allusion to Romney’s statement that illegal immigrants should “self-deport” – and says the federal government should dismiss lawsuits against states like Arizona that have instituted harsh immigration policies.

“Weaponizing” the immigration issue during a primary wasn’t good for the party’s standing among Latino voters.

“We went through a really tough period of time where the primary did the opposite of what we needed to be doing,” former Senator Martinez said. “It polarized the whole issue of immigration in a terrible way.”

A paralyzing bewilderment

Perhaps just as difficult to overcome is what might best be described as a paralyzing bewilderment.

As President Ronald Reagan put it: “Latinos are Republicans – they just don’t know it.”

Republicans from rank-and-file delegates up to elected members of Congress profess that Hispanics “should” be Republican voters for their conservative stances on marriage, faith, the military, and entrepreneurship.

If they “should” be Republicans, so the theory goes, then the onus is only on changing the GOP’s messaging – not its policies or its candidates.

None other than vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan took issue with similar thinking in his speech Wednesday night.

“President Obama was asked not long ago to reflect on any mistakes he might have made,” the Wisconsin congressman said. “He said, well, ‘I haven’t communicated enough.’ He said his job is to ‘tell a story to the American people’ – as if that’s the whole problem here? He needs to talk more, and we need to be better listeners?”

In the meantime, unless this wished-for ideological lightning strikes millions of Latinos, the party is going to need both the Latino stars among its current elected officials and efforts like those lead by Mr. Jankowski of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC).

For all the GOP’s national Latino problems, the party has an all-star cast of state leaders. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno join Martinez as the nation’s only Hispanic governors. In the Senate, Florida’s Rubio likely will soon be joined by Texas candidate Ted Cruz.

Having high-profile Latinos running for major office may help introduce those who have historically voted Democratic to the GOP.

“When we see high-profile elected officials who are Hispanic, it makes people stop and think and then educate themselves,” said Isaac Castro, an immigrant from Mexico and the mayor of Hamlin, Tex.

Developing the next stars

But praying for successive generations of Latino all-stars even as the party remains at odds with the Latino electorate at large isn’t a promising political strategy. That’s where Jankowski comes in.

“We just have to go and elect more [Hispanic Republicans] and get them on that escalator to higher office,” he said. “We don’t know who is [going to be] the next Marco Rubio or Brian Sandoval, we just know the more you elect of Hispanic descent, the better chance you have of producing an amazing leader.”

Currently, about a quarter of some 250 state legislators of Hispanic descent are Republicans. After this cycle, Jankowski aims to have doubled that number. The Future Majority Project, as the drive is known, supports candidates whose biographies and positions on immigration vary widely. The organization is “agnostic” on immigration policy, Jankowski said.

While the RSLC only targets areas that are better than 45 percent Republican, they will plant the flag in many places that have yet to see Hispanic Republican contenders. And that’s a step toward the inclusive campaigning strategy that Governor Martinez of New Mexico believes is vital to winning bigger prizes.

“It’s important that we go into every corner, whether it’s your state or the country,” Martinez said. “A lot of Republicans will consider a part of their state and say ‘I’ll never win that so I won’t go there.’ You have to” go beyond where Republicans are comfortable.

Without such outreach, Republicans fear they’ll be in for electoral beatings as sound as some they’ve administered to Democrats who ignored the South.

“Democrats ignored the South and lost the South. After 40 years of abandoning the South, the South turned red,” said Chris Daniel, a convention delegate and Harris County District Clerk in Houston, Tex.

But will Mitt Romney and the GOP change course before they lose their demographic “south”?

Asked to evaluate Romney’s outreach to Latinos thus far, Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and leading party strategist, smiled wryly.

“He’s got two months,” Barbour said.

The party? Jankowski thinks it’s a bit longer: six to eight years. But the ramifications of failure are far worse.  

“If we don’t perform better, we will lose,” he said, “and never win.”

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