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Republicans look to rebuild their traction with Hispanic voters

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A05

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.

"This is the largest and youngest minority group in our country. Because of the demographic bulge, they're going to grow much more quickly," said Pew executive Paul Taylor, a former political reporter, who says sheer numbers show why parties must find ways to reach Hispanics.

None of this is a surprise in El Paso, where then-Gov. George W. Bush (R) set out to win the largely Hispanic city in 1998, and did. Bush found issues -- notably education -- that resonated with El Paso residents and made frequent trips there.

"We're over 70 percent Hispanic. For a long time, we've been like Texas will be in another 20 years," said Republican insurance executive and Texas House candidate Dee Margo, who described El Paso as a town where "everyone was raised to pull the party lever straight-ticket for Democrats."

How did Bush win? "He spent a lot of time here. It didn't matter what their ethnicity was. Voters were voters," Margo said. "The focus was on the candidate, not the party. It helped to remove the stigma that some still believe out there -- that Republicans are bad."

On his way to winning two terms, including 240 of 254 counties in 1998, Bush once told voters he was elected "because my vision is to include, not exclude; to unify, not to divide."

Estimating Hispanic vote totals is an inexact science, but the high-water marks for Republicans in Texas appear to be 1998 and 2004, when Bush got more than one in three Hispanic votes. As James Henson, head of the Texas Politics project at the University of Texas, put it, "The Republican Party made some inroads during the Bush hegemony but hasn't been able to hang in there."

Bonilla, now a consultant dividing his time between Texas and Washington, said he has urged Republican leaders in Congress "not to forget" Hispanics: "Sometimes I'm concerned that there's not more action. They're absolutely in agreement, but once the next day begins, they're distracted by bailouts and health care and cap-and-trade."

Why GOP is falling short

Luis Saenz managed the 2006 reelection campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in 2006. He sees increasing inclusiveness among some GOP politicians, but he perceives "too much patronizing." His counsel is grounded in fundamentals: "The efforts have to be constant, not just election year."

The beginning of GOP success, Saenz said, is the answer to a riddle: "How do you get voters to say, 'This party looks like me'? The Democratic Party has done a really good job of bringing everybody in. The Republican Party has to do a better job."

Strategists emphasize the need to avoid treating voters differently on the basis of ethnicity or race. "This idea of putting all short people in one box, tall people in another box, Hispanics in one box, black people in a box, women in a box, is anachronistic," said Steele, an African American who became the first Republican lieutenant governor in Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2 to 1.

Manny Flores, a great-great-grandson of Mexican-born sharecroppers, heads an Austin advertising agency where Perry recruited him for his 2010 reelection campaign. Flores said the key is "really understanding the consumer's point of view, whether it be beer, pizza, burgers or a governor."

In California, where politics professor Louis DeSipio says Hispanics have become "part of the fabric" of state politics, Democrats are often more visible to young, politically active Hispanics and newly naturalized citizens. "They just don't have local faces who are Republican who can show them the ropes in politics," said DeSipio, who teaches at the University of California-Irvine.

When pressed on the status of GOP efforts to find more of those faces, spokeswoman Angela Sailor said the party's political and coalitions divisions are working with state parties "to recruit Hispanic candidates with an emphasis on local candidates." Yet at the winter RNC meeting in Honolulu last month, how to attract Hispanic voters and candidates was not on the agenda.

Dan Bartlett, who advised Bush in Texas and Washington, said Republicans need to recruit well and build "an authentic relationship" with Hispanics. "The Hispanics are going to be a dominant political force in the state of Texas and around the country for the next 100 years, and the Republican Party's blowing it," he said. "There's a real dearth of smart thinking on the Republican side of the aisle."

Beyond the immigration issue, Hispanics were alienated by Republicans pushing for English-only policies and stringent law enforcement while opposing paths to legal residency and citizenship. Bonilla said it was a moment when "all of this came crashing backward."

"Hispanics would get me on the phone and say, 'What's going on? Don't you like us anymore?' " he recalled.

Steele said the vitriol on immigration "harkens back, quite frankly, to the Southern strategy that the Republicans embraced in the 1960s, causing black Republicans to abandon the party." He wants to avoid a repeat with Hispanics. "A lot of stuff got miswired and screwed up in that debate. A lot of hotheads jumped in," he said of the immigration fight. "We have an obligation and an opportunity to reengage in that discussion and do a lot better than we did the last time."

Adrian Garcia, the first Hispanic sheriff of Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, is a Democrat who thinks Republicans did lasting damage to their brand, particularly among young Hispanic voters who are experiencing politics -- and choosing sides -- for the first time. "Immigration has galvanized the emerging generation, and they see it very clearly," said Garcia, whose parents and siblings were born in Mexico. "This is personal. It is personal to the fastest-growing community and to the next generation of community leaders."

The clock, Gillespie said, is ticking. He said Bush received 54 percent of the non-Hispanic white vote in 2000 and finished in a dead heat with Al Gore. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) got 55 percent of that vote in 2008 and lost the election by seven percentage points. "If the current voting percentages among white, black, Asian and Hispanic stay the same," Gillespie said, "the Republican nominee will lose by 14 points in 2020. We have to be more competitive."

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