GOP Going Full-Throttle on the Wrong Track for Latinos

As the Republican Party surveys its post-election train wreck, the pain must be even greater knowing that, with Hispanic voters, the GOP drove itself off the track.

Hispanics voted 67 percent for Barack Obama, playing a key role in flipping Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida to the Democratic column. The growing Hispanic vote in Virginia, Indiana and Pennsylvania was important to Democratic victories in close races in those states. Even more frightening for Republicans is the strong possibility that Latino voters could soon deliver Texas and Arizona to the Democrats. If this happens, Republicans can turn out the lights on their presidential hopes, lock the door and go on vacation for a decade or three.

This is a stunning shift from the progress made by President George W. Bush, who won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote just four years ago. Under Karl Rove's carefully constructed plan for a "permanent Republican majority," Hispanics were to be the crown jewel in the fight for future political hegemony. Bush and Rove, the president's former senior adviser, carefully reached out to Hispanic evangelicals and religious Catholics, appealing to their conservatism on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, their patriotism in a time of war and their family orientation, work ethic and entrepreneurialism. To Bush and Rove, Hispanics looked like latent Republicans.

Then came Immigration reform.

In December 2005, Dennis Hastert, then House speaker, pandering to the hard right of the GOP, allowed Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) to push through the House a truly draconian piece of legislation that would have turned all undocumented immigrants and the priests and nuns who serve them into felons.

The Sensenbrenner legislation triggered the historic immigrant marches in the spring of 2006, where millions chanted, tellingly, "Today we march; tomorrow we vote!" Nativist-haters and talk-radio demagogues who don't like to "Press 1 for English" mobilized their cultural conservative base, and cynics in the Republican Party thought they had a beautiful little "wedge" issue. They would paint Democrats as pandering to Mexican-Americans by supporting "amnesty for lawbreakers." Republican tax activist Grover Norquist warned of the consequences, saying, "We can't afford to do to the Hispanics what we did to the Roman Catholics in the late 19th Century: tell them we don't like them and lose their vote for a hundred years."

Ignoring his warning, the Republican National Committee covered the nation during the 2006 elections with mailers and TV commercials painting the Democrats as soft on illegal Immigration, to no avail. The GOP lost the House and Senate, and many anti-immigrant hard-liners were defeated.

By 2007, the Republican manipulation of anti-immigrant sentiment boomeranged and provoked a Republican civil war. The hard-liners opposed Bush and Sen. John McCain when they tried to pass Immigration reform. The hard-liners, like Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), crowed loudly after defeating the effort, but the net effect politically was to further weaken Bush.

Bush tried to unite his party in late 2007 and 2008 by unleashing a brutal series of high-profile raids that deported 349,000 illegal immigrants. The raids sowed fear and anger in the Mexican-American community and broke apart thousands of families. But a less-noticed result of the ugly debate was that the Latino community naturalized in record numbers. In the last year, 1.4 million immigrants became American citizens, legally eligible to vote.

The limited appeal of Immigration demagoguery and the lasting toll it is going to take on the GOP became clear early this year. Mitt Romney Iowa and New Hampshire as an anti-immigrant hard-liner. He was beaten by Mike Huckabee and McCain. Then Hastert's seat was lost in the humiliating defeat of Illinois' leading Immigration demagogue, ice cream magnate Jim Oberweis—in part because Latinos voted overwhelmingly against him.

On Nov. 4, more than 10 million Latinos cast ballots, almost three times as many as had voted 16 years ago. Latinos subjected the GOP to a convincing act of collective punishment, despite McCain's efforts to turn back the nativists in his party. An exit poll in Illinois found 68 percent of Latino voters consider the Republican Party not favorable toward immigrants. And, as Republicans are finally noticing, Latinos are voting in great numbers in critical presidential swing states. In a recent Newsweek column forlornly titled "A Way Out of the Wilderness," Rove dryly noted: "An anti-Hispanic attitude is suicidal."


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