WASHINGTON – Hispanics who have traditionally pulled Democratic levers at the polling booth since the most recent wave of immigration in the last half century, are deciding that they no longer want to be viewed as one monolithic voting bloc, and warn Democrats that Republicans are increasingly speaking their language.
“This administration understands that you can’t just put a blanket label on Hispanics,” said Patricia Lee, a Washington D.C. public relations specialist of Cuban-American descent, who volunteers regularly for Republican causes. “This is a different approach than the Democrats, who tend to put all minorities into one collective, helpless lump.”
But Democrats say the numbers don’t lie, and even Bush’s big effort to woo Hispanic voters in 2000 couldn't help him overcome the demographic defeat to then-Vice President Al Gore, 63 to 35 percent.
Of the 19 Hispanic members of Congress, only three are Republican. According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, nationally Hispanics hold 5,205 elected offices. Of them, 1,474 identified themselves as Democrats, 126 Republican.
While the GOP lists are indeed growing, the majority of Hispanic non-incumbents running for office this year are mostly Democrats.
Yet Republicans are still looking for an edge. Friday, Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to New Mexico to help the campaign of John Sanchez, who is running for governor, while Republicans from Georgia campaigned the same day at a Mexican restaurant.
Republicans do enjoy majority support with Cuban Americans, especially in South Florida, but they only account for 3.5 percent of the total number of Hispanics in this country.
But Mexican-Americans, who account for 58 percent, still heavily vote Democrat.
“There is a natural tendency for Democrats to have a relationship with the Hispanic community. We are always fighting for the issues that are of the most concern to them, day in and day out,” said Guillermo Meneses, director of Hispanic media for the Democratic National Party.
Those issues, said Meneses, are the economy and rising unemployment, education, healthcare, immigration services and affirmative action.
Larry Gonzalez, who is of Mexican descent, directs the Washington, D.C. office of NALEAO. He warns that while Hispanics might consider the above issues important to them, they don't necessarily agree with the Democratic party about how to deal with them.
“I think the Latino vote is up for grabs. There was a real sense in 2000 that Democrats took them for granted and for the first time you were hearing a different voice,” he said, pointing out that Bush's numbers were a tremendous improvement over previous presidential elections.
“They are realizing that it’s good to have a choice, where in the past, they would blindly vote for Democrats,” Gonazalez added.
Rudy Fernendez, the grass-roots coordinator for the Republican National Committee, admits the party has a long way to go on recruitment, but said he believes the message is resonating.
"[Democrats'] strategy has been largely based on scare tactics -- they scare them into thinking that Republicans are anti-Hispanic, that they aren’t wanted in this country," said Fernendez. "But president Bush is not easily demonized. The more they learn about Bush and his agenda, they more they tend to support him."
Raquel Marrero, a Cuban-American GOP activist in Miami, said Hispanics are tired of “the protective fatherhood thing,” that the Democrats peddle.
“They’re not cutting the umbilical cord so that we can grow and face our responsibilities," she said, noting that Hispanic business owners, for instance, need to be addressed as such, not as victims of the system.
But the ballot box is where the real test of the GOP's outreach will take place. Latino voters counted for 5.5 percent of the voting population in 2000 and are 12.5 percent of the total legal U.S. adult population, which is roughly 13 million people. Only 5.9 million of 7.5 million registered Hispanic voters cast votes in 2000 -- a record 79 percent, but still lower than the 85 percent turnout of registered voters nationwide.
Experts warn that growing immigration numbers will not translate into a greater degree of civic participation unless Hispanics are more assimilated into the process. And given their socio-economic, regional and ethnic differences, no one should count on the group to vote the same way on any given issue.
“In California, it is the agricultural worker who is concerned about health care and immigration. That’s different from Miami, where you have political exiles from Cuba and people with different economic backgrounds,” said Marrero.
Regala Gonzalez, a Democratic activist and Cuban-American in Boston, disagreed, saying the basic needs of health care, employment, education and housing are universal for all Americans.
“The Democrats are addressing these issues and I just don’t think the Republicans are,” she said, admitting that Democrats had been slow to court the Hispanic vote. “We have always felt that Latinos were Democrats, but politicians have taken that for granted. They haven’t paid attention to recruiting more. Now they are doing it because Republicans took the initiative.”