How Republicans' Nasty Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric May Come Back to Bite Mitt Romney on the Ass This Election Day
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Republicans deluded themselves into believing that by focusing on “illegals,” they wouldn't pay a price with Latino citizens. It's true that a majority of native-born Latinos favor cutting down on the undocumented population. But the tone -- the xenophobia -- is seen as an assault on the entire community, native- and foreign-born, with papers and without. 16 million Latinos live in “mixed status” households – with at least one citizen and one unauthorized immigrant.
If Obama wins, we will hear a lot about a coming “ civil war” within the ranks of the Republican establishment, and Latinos will be a big part of that conversation. The “pragmatists” will insist that the party needs to shun the nativists and then everything will be fine – Latinos will come back into the fold. But history suggests that, once situated firmly within one party's camp, groups of voters are not easily dislodged.
California provides an object lesson. Before 1994, it was a swing-state, with a very strong Republican party. In fact, California went for the Republican in every presidential race between 1952 and 1988 except for 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide. Fourteen of the state's eighteen governors in the 20th century were Republicans.
Then, in 1994, Governor Pete Wilson hooked his wagon to Proposition 187, a bill that would deny unauthorized immigrants access to all public services, including education. Latinos opposed it in large numbers. But then, as now, it wasn't just the policy but the tone that mattered. As Kathy Olmstead put it, “he made anti-immigrant fervor the center of his campaign, and behind him his party climbed on the anti-immigrant bandwagon.”
White anxieties about the rising Latino population soon boiled into racial resentments, driven in no small measure by Wilson’s gritty, noir advertising that played to fears of lawless, dark-skinned immigrants overwhelming the state of California. Mexican-Americans, some of whose families had been in California since the eighteenth century, were soon enduring taunts and challenges to “become a citizen or go back where you came from.”
The once-proud California Republican party has been relegated to the sidelines in the Golden State ever since. Before prop-187, Democrats had a 6-point advantage in California elections, according to Olmstead. In 1998, Gray Davis, a deeply flawed candidate, won Latinos by a 61-point margin. In 2002, the GOP failed to win a single state-wide race. It hasn't recovered since.
The Latino population in the United States skews younger than whites. Almost 20 percent were under the voting age in 2010, and every cycle more will join the electorate. The chickens have only begun to come home to roost; the GOP is going to be in trouble for a long time, as states like Texas and Arizona turn purple, and then possibly blue.
This image, from Pew Hispanic Research, should offer a terrifying glimpse of the future for Republican stalwarts. You reap what you sow.