Do Latinos Have a Republican Problem? The GOP’s Struggle to Reach Out Might Bring Bigger Problems

There were a few developments that were supposed to be a sure thing after last November’s Presidential contest – mostly, gridlock as well as the implementation of Obamacare – but perhaps none as certain as immigration reform. The GOP primary and the Republican campaign for the White House had made clear Republican opposition to legalizing America’s undocumented denizens, but after the election, people like Charles Krauthammer – a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post – were saying things like:

I think Republicans can change their position, be a lot more open to actual amnesty with enforcement – amnesty, everything short of citizenship – and to make a bold change in their policy. Enforcement, and then immediately after a guarantee of amnesty. That would completely change anything. If you had a Rubio arguing that, it would completely upend all ethnic alignments.

And you had people like Sean Hannity saying things like:

We’ve gotta get rid of the immigration issue altogether. It’s simple for me to fix it. I think you control the border first, you create a pathway for those people that are here, you don’t say you gotta home. And that is a position that I’ve evolved on. Because you know what – it just – it’s gotta be resolved. The majority of people here – if some people have criminal records you can send’ em home – but if people are here, law-abiding, participating, four years, their kids are born here… first secure the border, pathway to citizenship… then it’s done. But you can’t let the problem continue. It’s gotta stop.

The different tune was probably related to Obama having won reelection with 71% of the Latino vote. Alas, less than a year later, Republicans seem in danger of squandering an opportunity to rebrand with Latinos by aiding in the passage of an immigration reform bill. And Latinos stand to lose as much as Republicans.

Immigration has been fraught in the US since the beginning.

Immigration has been fraught in the US since the beginning.

The debate surrounding the bill would give Republicans an opportunity to get right on an issue many Latinos care about, but even just getting the bill passed would remove a major source of consternation for the GOP. Simply put, as long as immigration reform is a live political topic, Republican candidates run the risk of having to say things to their base that are objectionable to moderate and Latino voters. For the party, it would be better to just make sure the whole thing goes away.

Or, at least, that’s what’s in the best interest of the RNC, Presidential candidates, and Senators from competitive states. Everyone else, including just about all the members of the GOP House caucus, have no incentive to go after moderates. The analysis in the election’s aftermath seemed to have underestimated just how weak the Republican establishment currently is, and that initial optimism regarding immigration reform now seems misplaced.

The first risk is that the bill won’t pass at all, which would leave the GOP politically exposed. We’ve already seen tussles in Congress over what immigration reform will mean for gay couples. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has introduced language that would, under immigration law, accord people in same-sex marriages the same rights as other married couples. In response, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has said that if such language is in the final bill, which he has been instrumental in helping develop, he’ll vote against it:

If this bill has in it something that gives gay couples immigration rights and so forth, it kills the bill. I’m gone. I’m off it.

In addition, and to no one’s surprise, the seemingly straightforward principle that border security should be included in any final bill has also threatenes to derail the process. Democrats accuse Republicans of crafting unrealistic standards that ensure that most of their sought-after reforms will never actually be implemented, while Republicans accuse Democrats of refusing to take the necessary steps to secure the US-Mexico border. Democrats retort that the border is already as secure as it has been in decades.

All this would seem to be good news for the Democrats. If they get the reform they want, they’ll be able to tout their accomplishment while using the GOP’s apparent resistance against them in 2016, and maybe in 2014 as well. If they don’t get immigration reform, then all the better for the electoral argument, especially during next year’s midterm.

But for Latinos, the inability of the GOP to bring the party around on immigration spells potential trouble.

In American politics, the way to be a powerful constituency is to represent the class of voter that no candidate can afford to ignore. That way, a candidate has a reasonable fear that you’ll vote for the other guy, but they also have a reasonable expectation that you might vote for them.

Blue-collared white workers, women, Wall-Street bankers, and many people in retirement seem to fit this bill.

Black voters do not, and the result seems to be that both parties largely ignore their interests. With Democratic candidates routinely winning 90%-plus of the vote among African Americans, candidates can afford to play a turnout strategy, rather than a policy-driven strategy. In other words, you don’t have to convince black voters to vote for you because your policies are so good; you just have to convince them to come out and vote at all. It turns out that the most effective strategy for doing that is to attack the other guy’s policies as dangerous and threatening, without ever offering a real alternative. That’s what political co-optation looks like, and it isn’t pretty.

Colin Powell’s presence in the Bush White House wasn’t enough to get the support of Colin Powell for the GOP candidate in either the 2008 or 2012 election. It was about as effective with other African Americans.

Colin Powell’s presence in the Bush White House wasn’t enough to get Colin Powell’s support for the GOP candidate in either the 2008 or 2012 election. It was about as effective with other African Americans.

(Alternatively, if you know black voters will only vote against you, then you might be tempted to make it more difficult for them to vote.)

This outcome will obtain whenever one party is meaningfully acceptable to a constituency while the other party is not, as long as the constituency is not large enough to capture the acceptable party. (That last caveat is important, if black Americans were a larger proportion of the electorate – like they are in some cities – then they would simply co-opt the Democratic party, rather than the other way around.)

The Republican answer to their Latino problem has, so far, been the same as their ineffective answer to their African-American problem. Rather than make substantive changes to their platform, they’ve employed a bewildering tactic: while loudly decrying identity politics, they’ve encouraged minority voters to relate to the party through prominent minority members.

For example, during the Bush administration, the GOP championed the roles played by Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. More recently, we’ve seen Republicans champion Latinos like Marco Rubio and New-Mexico governor Susana Martinez. (And, of course, we were all witness to the bizarre spectacle that was Herman Cain’s 2012 run for President.)

Besides being horribly patronizing, this approach turns out not to work so well. Relating to voters on a personal level might be made easier when you share an ethnic background with them, but that advantage won’t overcome the disadvantage of espousing policies they don’t support.

For example, Massachusetts’ current Senate race boasts the state’s first serious Latino contender for the office, but the region’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, El Planeta just endorsed the other guy.

(As an aside, any attempt at Spanish by Ed Markey would be treated with the same warm approval extended to Jeb Bush’s efforts, but when your last name is Gomez – or Rubio – you run a serious risk if you speak the language any less than fluently.)

Marco Rubio hopes to test the willingness of Puerto Ricans to vote for a Cuban in 2016.

Marco Rubio hopes to test the willingness of Puerto Ricans to vote for a Cuban in 2016.

There’s a related error in viewing minority groups through an overly monolithic lens, perhaps especially Latino voters. Marco Rubio, prominent throughout this post and in short-lists for the 2014 Presidential race, is imagined to have a natural advantage because of his Latino heritage. But we simply don’t know yet how relevant it is that his parents are from Cuba and not from somewhere like Mexico. Cubans have long exhibited voting and demographic patterns that differ from other Latinos in the US and there has been a not-insignificant amount of tension across that group boundary.

In short, Latinos might not be as natural a voting block as we’ve been led to believe. I, for one, would largely welcome that.

But we should probably remember that communities don’t just grow up organically from shared attributes like language and a common experience with immigration; the growth of community can also be a response to outside pressures. The worse the GOP is on the issues that matter to Latinos – starting with immigration but continuing on from there – the likelier it would be that Latinos will view themselves as members of a common and distinct group and vote accordingly.

If the result is that Republican candidates are no longer competitive among Latinos, that will be bad for the GOP; but it would probably be worse for Latinos.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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