Will McCain Bring Latino Voters Back to GOP?

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 22, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Until last week, Mark Malloy was one of many Latinos walking away from the Republican Party. The middle school teacher, son of an American father and a Nicaraguan mother, was part of a supposed swing of conservative Latino voters to the Democratic Party, motivated by the GOP's association with a hard-line immigration stance.

Malloy had grown "so disgusted" with anti-illegal-immigration measures in his home state of Virginia that last year, he made his first-ever political contribution to a candidate, Democrat John Edwards. This month, he even voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Virginia primary. Now, with Sen. John McCain the expected Republican nominee, Malloy says that his decision to turn his back on the GOP could change.

For all the talk about how hard it will be for conservatives to support McCain in the general election, conservative Latino voters have no such qualms. To them, McCain represents the best of all candidates when it comes to immigration.

That is why Bolivian immigrant Rafael Lopez, now a council member in Dumfries, Va., has been supporting McCain from the start. When McCain's campaign seemed to stumble early on and his nomination seemed a long shot, Lopez grew concerned. "If we don't have a good candidate in our party," Lopez said then, he would vote for Clinton.

In recent years, the Latino electorate has become a coveted political force. In the November elections, Hispanics could represent as much as 11 percent of the total electorate, up from 6 percent in 2000, according to pollster John Zogby. In California, Latinos voting on Super Tuesday almost doubled their numbers from 2004, while in states such as Connecticut and Missouri their totals more than tripled in those four years.

Not surprisingly, President Bush's former chief political adviser, Karl Rove, wisely courted Latino voters with a message of shared family and religious values. Florida Hispanics were crucial to Bush's narrow victory in 2000, and four years later up to 40 percent of Hispanic voters nationwide backed Bush, an unprecedented amount for a Republican candidate.

Things started to erode soon after Bush's re-election. In 2005, a punitive bill sponsored by House Judiciary Committee chairman F. James Sensenbrenner motivated hundreds of thousands of Hispanics to march in the streets in opposition to his proposal. A survey taken immediately before the 2006 midterm elections found that one in two likely Latino voters thought immigration was the most important or one of the most important issues in deciding their vote.

When anti-immigration measures seemed to become an obsession with the Republican base, most GOP candidates took tough positions that put gains among Latinos further at risk. McCain, who co-sponsored a comprehensive reform bill in the Senate in 2007, was put on the defensive. Since the bill's failure, McCain has been insisting that he would put border security first. But he stands by his assertion that the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country "need some protection under the law" and reminds people that just as with other waves of immigrants, Hispanics have "enriched our culture and our nation."

As the relationship between Latinos and the GOP evolves, it appears as if an enforcement-only platform, which means deportation, is not compatible with the party's stand on family values, observed Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. While issues such as education, health care and the economy rate as higher priorities for the Latino electorate in polls, immigration is a great energizer and brings them to the voting booth, posing a significant threat to candidates who take anti-immigrant stands.

Still, a McCain candidacy alone cannot guarantee Latino support this November. It seems a lot of damage has been done -- and not just because of immigration. A Pew Hispanic Center survey late last year found that 44 percent of registered Hispanic voters view the Democratic Party as showing more concern for Latinos, while only 8 percent say that of the Republican Party.

What McCain does in the coming weeks to solidify his standing with the GOP base may also keep Latinos away. If he pushes too hard to appease a certain segment of his party by moving closer to an enforcement-only approach on immigration, he may undermine the respect that has some Latinos reconsidering their flight to the Democrats.

For Malloy, one crucial factor will be McCain's choice of running mate, particularly considering that the veteran senator would be 72 at the time of his inauguration. "If they get a conservative guy that has a totally different view on immigration" from McCain's, Malloy said he would vote Democratic and leave the party he has once steadfastly supported. But McCain's candidacy has made that much less certain than it was just a couple of months ago.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

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