By Samuel Rodriguez Jr.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
It's immigration, stupid.
That's the message from Hispanic faith voters -- the de facto swing vote in this year's presidential election. The candidate who hears and heeds it may well win the White House in November. And despite the patterns of the past, that candidate may not be a Republican.
Hispanic evangelicals won't be squeezed into a Republican barrio. The question in our hearts and minds this election season is this: Is the Republican Party the party of xenophobia, nativism and anti-Latino demagoguery, or is it the party of faith and family values, regardless of skin color or language proficiency? Should we vote for Sen. John McCain because of his support for comprehensive immigration reform, or should Latino evangelicals shy away from a party that has refused to repudiate the polarizing and vicious rhetoric that has accompanied the immigration debate.
Hispanic faith voters include both evangelical Christians and Catholic charismatics. Many of us are the children of the Reagan revolution, the Moral Majority and the antiabortion movement. Where our parents championed the cause of economic equality and supported the Democratic Party, our generation wanted to connect the dots from the pulpit to the voting booth. Today, we also include large numbers from Generation X and Generation Y, younger adults who speak both Spanish and English fluently and hold strong social conservative beliefs but also embrace populist economic policies.
Without Hispanic faith voters, George W. Bush never would have won Florida in 2000 and 2004. Today, we play a major role in such swing states as New Mexico, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada and others. Without us, the Republican Party cannot succeed in a national election.
Until recently, the GOP stood ready to capture more than 50 percent of the Latino vote, thanks to evangelicals. In 2004, 44 percent of Hispanics voted for Bush -- but among Hispanic Protestants (chiefly evangelicals), according to the Pew Research Center, this figure was 56 percent. Last year, a Pew survey revealed that Latino evangelicals are twice as likely as Latino Catholics to identify with the Republican Party (37 percent vs. 17 percent). And Latino evangelicals are far more likely than Latino Catholics to describe themselves as conservative (46 percent to 31 percent).
The Pew survey reveals a constituency even more conservative on social issues than its white counterpart. Eighty-six percent of Hispanic evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage, compared with 67 percent of white evangelicals. While 61 percent of white evangelicals oppose abortion, an overwhelming 77 percent of Hispanic evangelicals repudiate the practice.
These factors alone would seem to make Hispanic faith voters a natural GOP constituency, but in the past two presidential elections, we also can't deny the Bush Factor. George W. Bush reached out to Hispanics like no other GOP candidate in history. He matched Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" outreach to the black community with his "I speak your language" mantra. The border-state, taco-eating, baseball-loving, broken-Spanish-speaking Texas governor resonated with the Latino community. He wooed us as we had never been wooed, and argued that we personify the idea of compassionate conservatism.
So why would these compassionate conservatives break away from the Republican Party? Two years ago, meeting with former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and Sens. Trent Lott and John McCain, I expressed the possible ramifications for the GOP if immigration-reform legislation did not succeed. I predicted a definitive decline in Latino support in the 2006 midterm elections. I was right. Support for Republican candidates among Hispanic faith voters fell from 44 percent in 2004 to 27 percent in 2006.
Hispanic Christian voters overwhelmingly support an end to illegal immigration and the protection of the borders. The great divide between us and the GOP is over the question of what to do with the 12 million undocumented workers currently in the United States. While Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and his supporters last year reinforced a xenophobic thread within the Republican establishment, Hispanic faith voters fought for immigration reform that reconciled the three pillars of our nation: the rule of law, our Judeo-Christian values system and the pursuit of the American Dream.
But we have learned that our white brothers and sisters who believe in a pro-family agenda also embrace a predominantly anti-immigration-reform agenda. Reina Olmeda, a Pentecostal Latina pastor, expressed the sentiment of many Hispanic evangelicals: "We're caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place. We either vote for a party that resonates with our beliefs but does not want us, or with a party that wants us but does not resonate with our beliefs."
So, with much trepidation, the Hispanic faith voter is looking to the Democratic Party for a viable alternative. Although Hispanic evangelicals align with the social values platform of the GOP, the Democrats can easily capitalize on a kindred constituency when it comes to economic and social justice issues. While most white evangelicals limit their political agenda to abortion and marriage issues, Hispanic evangelicals embrace a broader agenda that also includes health-care and education reform, alleviating poverty, help for Darfur and HIV/AIDS, climate change and immigration reform.
But chiefly, it's because immigration reform failed in the Senate last June that the Democrats stand poised to make significant inroads into the Hispanic values vote. That failure could be to the national GOP what the passage of the anti-immigration Proposition 187 was to the GOP in California in 1994, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson's support alienated Hispanic voters.
The greatest indicator of the trouble between Republicans and Hispanic faith voters are the actions of diehard Republican operative Rev. Mark Gonzalez of Dallas. Last week, Gonzalez captured the collective disappointment of the Hispanic community when he said that his primary objective in this election cycle is to register voters in the 10 states with the largest Hispanic population. He doesn't care, he says, whether they vote Democrat or Republican, as long they vote -- and demonstrate that Latino Christians represent a meaningful, and valuable, constituency.
In the end, Hispanic evangelicals are married to neither the Christian right nor the Christian left. We are the standard-bearers of Christian equilibrium. And this fall, we may force both the Democrats and the Republicans to move to the center to capture the Latino vote.
Samuel Rodriguez Jr. is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of Hispanic evangelicals.