That question was on the minds of many political operatives and pundits after the 2008 election. The theory was that the GOP was becoming a regional (Southern) party of white males. The Republican Party, some commentators argued, was in danger of extinction if it could not appeal to an electorate becoming more pluralistic every year. In 2004 George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote; the idea that Republicans could get even close to that share seemed like a distant hope after President Obama’s election.
But in 2012 opportunities abound for the GOP. In July of this year Gallup reported that support for Obama among Hispanics had dipped almost more than 20 points since his election. His frantic efforts to woo Hispanic voters disappointed over his failure to deliver on immigration reform suggests the White House is well aware of the danger of losing Hispanic voters. And with the election of prominent Hispanics including Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, Republicans are beginning to shed their all-white image. Moreover, with an unemployment rate of over 11 percent for Hispanics, Republicans have an opening to explain their own message on growth, jobs, and education.
What has been missing, Jennifer Korn, told me in a phone interview yesterday, is “a concerted effort on an outgoing basis” to engage the Hispanic community. Korn has recently come on board as executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative group that had an impressive launch in January. As a veteran of the Bush White House and the national Hispanic director who helped implement Bush’s successful 2004 Hispanic outreach plan, she seems ideally suited to try to connect the GOP with an increasingly critical part of the electorate.
On tap is an HLN gathering on Sept. 23-24 in New Mexico that will invite “Hispanic leaders already engaged” in Republican politics but also “cast a wide net” to reach new voters, candidates and political operatives. She cautions that the effort is not only about immigration. She told me, “Hispanic are Americans and care about the same things we all do — jobs, education, health care. . .”
But plainly immigration remains a hot-button issue. She maintains that there is an opening given Obama’s failure to deliver on everything from comprehensive immigration to free-trade deals with Colombia and Panama.
The problem, of course, is what, if anything, Republicans are saying and offering on that topic. Officials including Rubio and Martinez have taken tough stances on border enforcement while maintaining a positive image with the Hispanic community. Korn stresses that “we have to secure the border” before other issues can be addressed. HLN intends to work on policy proposals on a range of issues and make those available to public officials.
Korn says HLN will need to put together a grassroots network, develop surrogates who can appear in both English- and Spanish-language media and draw in Hispanic voters to interact with elected officials. After the event in September another is planned next year. Whether HLN will interact with the presidential contenders is yet to be determined.
However, for now, Korn says, “The number one issue is job and the economy.” In that regard it is a boon for conservatives to have outspoken officials like Rubio to pound home a conservative message on jobs and the economy. The party is fortunate to have Rubio, Martinez and Sandoval “because they believe in the issues we believe in,” Korn says.
If this sounds like a work in progress, it is. The GOP has not had effective surrogates, political networks that extend beyond campaigns and other building blocks of political organization required to woo and retain Hispanic voters. But if Korn is successful, that will change.
Despite this necessary ground work, the presidential and vice presidential nominees will define the direction and tone of the party, and in large measure, the degree to which the GOP can make in-roads into this traditional Democratic constituency. Candidates getting geared up in Iowa are understandably concerned with a range of organizations and policy issues. But they would do well to begin to think about how their message will appeal to a diverse electorate. And they should consider how to present a position on immigration consistent with law and order values that does not offend Hispanic voters and that still embraces positive themes of opportunity, tolerance and inclusion. The GOP’s ability to recapture the White House may depend on it.