WASHINGTON – Immigration policy and party message are at the top of a list of issues Republicans are reviewing as they try to woo back the rapidly growing Latino population following a November midterm election that saw Hispanic support for the GOP drop by nearly a third.
The Republican share of the Latino vote fell from 44 percent in 2004 to 30 percent this year, according to FOX News exit polling data. With the Hispanic vote making up 8 percent of the electorate in 2006 compared to 5 percent in 1996, the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority in America will be essential to winning elections down the road, say Republicans looking to recover from this year's losses.
"We can do better, we need to do better," said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
“We believe that the party that captures and motivates and gets the Hispanic vote to turn out is going to be the party who wins the White House” in 2008, said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the nation’s largest and oldest Hispanic rights group.
President Bush has long courted the Hispanic vote, which helped the former Texas governor win the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. But it was Democrats who followed his strategy in 2006, capturing nearly 70 percent of the Hispanic vote this year, FOX News exit polls show.
A week after the November election, Republicans signaled a new emphasis on the Hispanic vote when Bush recommended that the Republican National Committee select Cuban-American Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida to lead the party in the next election cycle. RNC members vote in January on the all-but done deal.
“My job will be to make sure the Republican party’s message is heard, that it is a message that speaks to all Americans, and that it’s also an inclusive message,” Martinez told reporters on Nov. 14 after meeting with Bush in the West Wing.
Martinez, who will become the first Hispanic general chairman of the party, will serve largely as a figurehead for the organization, bringing publicity and prestige. Mike Duncan, the RNC's current general counsel and a former party treasurer, will run day-to-day operations. The dual chairmanship will replace the role held previously by Ken Mehlman.
But far from being just a cosmetic change, Martinez is being tasked not only with the challenge of winning back Hispanic voters lost to Democrats in 2006 but also to seal a win for the White House in 2008.
Diaz said the way forward includes a more aggressive approach explaining the party's platform and more effective delivery of the party's message. He said having Martinez as the face of the party will assist in delivering a more believable message.
"It certainly will help. It will provide us an ability to communicate in a much more credible and vigorous way with Hispanic voters," Diaz said. "We stand much closer ideologically to Hispanics than Democrats do."
Not so, say Democrats who argue that taking back a significant chunk of the Hispanic vote from Republicans in 2006 proves Hispanics want change in Washington.
"I think the Hispanics, like most Americans, rejected the divisive campaigns of the 'do-nothing' Congress. I think they wanted a new direction," said Luis Miranda, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
"Mel Martinez or no Mel Martinez, this is a party that has lost touch, doesn't have an agenda and doesn't line up with the values of the majority of America," Miranda said of the GOP.
Miranda said part of the Democratic appeal to Hispanics was built on issues other than immigration, like disgust with the war in Iraq and political corruption. But immigration protests last spring and the ongoing debate over how to handle the millions of illegal immigrants coming to this country is an undeniably central issue for Hispanics.
“My hope is that I can begin to craft a message that will bring people together on that issue -- very tough issue,” Martinez said.
Last session, Congress tried to address ways to stem the illegal immigrant tide, but only succeeded in passing a measure to build a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats have signaled that they are going to revisit that legislation when they take the majority next Congress and plan to look at other forms of border control, such as virtual fencing, a position backed by Bush but unpopular to a majority of Republicans.
“There’s nothing perfect about the legislation we’ve been discussing in the past, on any account,” Martinez said. “But border security only, enforcement only, harshness only is not the message that I believe America wants to convey.
“I think we didn't always strike the right tone on that. And I think that was a mistake,” he said.
Wilkes, of LULAC, warned that the GOP's "hard-line" position on immigration needs to change if it wants to win back Hispanics. LULAC supports a measure to offer a guest worker program with the opportunity for illegal workers to become permanent residents. Those provisions stymied immigration reform in the previous Congress.
“I think they realized that they made a big strategic error in pursuing a hard-line stance in the House and that enabled the Democrats to win back control,” Wilkes said. “What they really needed to do this time is put someone in place to pursue a strategy in recruiting the Hispanic vote.”
But conservative commentators have warned that trying to appeal to Hispanics with a lax immigration policy will lose Republican base votes. Adam Segal, director the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University, said Hispanic voters are split over immigration, in particular a temporary guest worker program.
The party that can figure out how best to address immigration issues could seal the Latino vote next election, he said.
"The biggest unknowns are how the immigration issue will play out," Segal said.
Robert de Posada, president of the Latino Coalition, a non-profit, non-partisan group, said selecting Martinez to head the GOP is a key step to convincing Hispanics of Republican commitment. He noted that Democrats don’t have any Hispanics in national leadership roles. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, won the top spot on the House Intelligence Committee as a second choice for incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“With the symbol and message of appointing Senator Martinez it sends the message to Latinos that ‘We’re sorry, we’re back and we want you,’“ de Posada said. “Compare that to what the Democrats’ message has been, a message of ‘We have you, you’re ours but we’ll do whatever we want with you.’ “
De Posada said Republicans now need to focus on their message to Hispanics.
“I think 99 percent of the problem that they had in the 2006 election was in the message. The tone of the message was so harsh. They need to get back to the basics … Martinez is by far the best person to do that,” he said.
Segal said a study by his group showed that Democrats "are likely to have a unique advantage heading into 2008," but whoever reaches out to Hispanics early in the campaign will help win support ahead of the presidential election.
"I think that the early steps that the candidates take to introduce themselves to the Hispanic community, the better off they'll be on Election Day," Segal said.