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Republicans Lost Ground With Latinos In Midterms
After Gains in 2004, GOP Stumbled on Immigration

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006

Two years ago, Latino voters gravitated in larger-than-ever numbers toward President Bush, the former governor of Texas, a Mexican border state, and his brother Jeb, the loquacious Florida governor who speaks fluent Spanish.

How times have changed.

Pollsters generally agree that the same voters abandoned the president's party in droves during last week's elections, with Latinos giving the GOP only 30 percent of their vote as strident House immigration legislation inspired by Republicans and tough-talking campaign ads by conservative candidates roiled the community. It was a 10-point drop from the lowest estimated Latino vote percentage two years ago, and a 14-point drop from the highest.

Depending on who did the counting, pollsters said in 2004 that Latinos handed GOP candidates between 40 percent and 44 percent of their vote -- a historic Republican windfall -- as the Bush brothers appealed to their socially conservative views on abortion and same-sex marriage.

"I think you have to look at the Republican effort on immigration as a catastrophic mistake in a year when they made many mistakes," said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, formerly the New Democrat Network. "They now know that the Republican Party is hostile to Hispanics, which is something they didn't know two years ago. That's a big burden for them to overcome."

Latinos by and large supported the millions of marchers who protested House immigration proposals in the spring, and there are recent signs that Republicans are working to bring them back to the party.

Republicans worked hard this week to get the word out that they had appointed Cuban American Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) to lead the Republican National Committee. On Wednesday, the RNC dispatched an e-mail message in which about 20 conservatives praised the appointment.

"Martinez would give the party tremendous legitimacy among the growing Hispanic voter base," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). "He's an absolute rock star in the Hispanic community."

But one comment, from the Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., founder of Esperanza USA, a network of Latino Christian groups, reads like a velvet slap, mixing praise with criticism.

"A lot of the Republican candidates chose immigration as the wedge issue, and polls seem to bear out that it was an error for them to do that," Cortés said. "And I think Mel Martinez, because of his life story, is a perfect person to help them find their way back from that era."

Latinos are the nation's largest ethnic minority at more than 14 million. Their voting pool is smaller than the African American community's, but it is growing and is eagerly courted by both major parties for its potential to turn future elections.

In 2004, it was the Democrats who were frustrated. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) performed so poorly among Latinos, relative to historical voting, that a frustrated Rosenberg praised the Republican strategy of appealing to the group, particularly in Texas, New Mexico and Florida, and lambasted Kerry for failing to reach an important segment of the Democratic base.

Conservatives trotted out the eloquent George P. Bush, the president's nephew, whose mother was born in Mexico, on the campaign trail and trumpeted high-level appointments such as then-White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, now the attorney general.

"Democrats have a legacy with Hispanics. But Republicans have a modern strategy. Their strategy is changing the rules, and Democrats have to adapt," Rosenberg said testily at a news conference back then. "It is a sea change."

But a political wind in the House would change things again, starting in 2005. Republicans, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.), proposed one of the toughest immigration laws in history. The bill would make it a felony to assist any illegal immigrant, frightening the Roman Catholic Church. It worried rights groups because it would step up enforcement that could cost illegal immigrants their jobs, homes and lives.

Local and state governments passed measures that targeted illegal immigrants. And several local officials called on the federal government to train their police in techniques that would allow them to detain and deport illegal immigrants for offenses such as traffic violations.

Latino voters noticed that Senate Democrats largely supported legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to stay, if they were willing to pay a fine for sneaking into the country, learn English and go to the back of an employment line where newly authorized foreign workers would get first dibs on jobs.

Republican candidates said the Senate proposal was an amnesty.

The GOP stance "was wildly, wildly unpopular and in fact backfired on a number of candidates," said Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners. "It helped mobilize Latino voters for the Democratic side."

But Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, which opposes increased immigration, said the Latino vote was not that great a factor.

"The election had absolutely nothing to do with immigration," she said. "It was about George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. I think the public has made it very clear where they stand on immigration."

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