Republicans look to rebuild their traction with Hispanic voters

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

AUSTIN -- Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican whose district ran along the Mexican border, won seven straight elections to the House by relying on retail politics in Hispanic communities where GOP candidates had rarely bothered to tread.

He thrived in Congress and co-chaired the two Republican National Conventions that nominated George W. Bush. In a period when the party sought to telegraph a vision of diversity, however spotty its record, the effort yielded Hispanic votes in Texas and beyond. That was then.

After back-to-back hammerings in the 2006 and 2008 elections, the GOP is trying to figure out how it slid so far behind with Hispanic voters. With their traditional white-male base shrinking, Republican strategists talk with increasing urgency about wooing Hispanics, who are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population and who vote mostly Democratic.

"If you don't go out and bring more Hispanics to our party, the math isn't there to win, no matter what the other side does," said Bonilla, who has argued the case in one-on-one meetings with Republican leaders in Congress. "If they're too blind to recognize that, it's their own selves doing them in."

Bonilla should know. He lost in 2006 to another Hispanic candidate, a Democrat.

The Hispanic population is expected to increase by nearly 200 percent by 2050, with non-Hispanic whites accounting for about half the U.S. population, down from 69.4 percent in 2000. From 1988 to 2008, the number of eligible Hispanic voters rose 21 percent -- from 16.1 million to 19.5 million.

"The numbers don't lie," said Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant. "If Republicans don't do better among Hispanics, we're not going to be talking about how to get Florida back in the Republican column, we're going to be talking about how not to lose Texas."

Fewer Hispanics view the Democratic Party favorably than did a year ago, according to NBC-Wall Street Journal polls, when they had recently voted in record numbers for Barack Obama. But by many measures, including candidate recruitment and vote totals, Republicans continue to struggle. The most vexing problem is the immigration debate, in which hard-liners and "tea party" activists have alienated many Hispanics with their harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.

"That's the word that got back to folks on the street: 'They don't want us,' " said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, who is looking for ways to tamp down fiery anti-immigration language.

One lesson of Republican Robert F. McDonnell's win in his race last fall for Virginia governor was to "run inclusive campaigns," said Ed Gillespie, a McDonnell adviser and former RNC chairman. He said McDonnell reached out to Hispanics, "instead of indulging in the anti-immigration rhetoric of past Republican campaigns."

Steele, the GOP's first African American chairman, wants to broaden the party's appeal. His approach centers on reaching Hispanics in more places, with what one aide called "real integration." Steele banned the word "outreach" from his staff's lexicon, saying it indicates that Hispanics and other minorities are not considered integral party members. The party's Coalitions Department has held training sessions on communication and messaging in a handful of states, including Colorado, California and Illinois. Hispanics are invited and one of three trainers is Hispanic, reported a staffer, who said in an e-mail, "Every initiative that we have (across all departments) includes a strategy for expanding our appeal to the Hispanic community and other nontraditional GOP voters."

The Bush model

Roughly 2 million more Hispanics cast ballots in the 2008 presidential race than said they did four years earlier, according to an analysis of Census Bureau survey data by the Pew Research Center. The percentage of total votes that were cast by Hispanics doubled to 7.4 percent between 1988 and 2008, the center said.

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