Post-mortem by Hispanic conservatives
by Sam Youngman
A group of senior and up-and-coming Hispanic conservatives with close ties to leaders of the Republican Party will meet in the coming weeks to work out how to salvage the GOP’s electoral chances with a voting bloc that deserted them on Nov. 4.
Like many Republican groups in the aftermath of a crushing election cycle, the Hispanic conservatives plan a political post-mortem to lay bare what the party did wrong and how to fix it.
They are party loyalists, and they say their voice is critically important if the GOP is not to suffer decades-long alienation from the fastest-growing demographic group in the country.
“Obviously, we’re very concerned with the way the Hispanic vote is trending, and we think something needs to be done,” said Mario Lopez, a member of the group and president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund.
The group, which has no formal name, is made up of young Hispanics and older party leaders who have worked in the White House and for the Bush and McCain presidential campaigns.
Members include former Bush aide Rudy Fernandez; former vice chairman of the California Republican Party Mario Rodriguez; and Al Cardenas, the former two-time chairman of the Florida Republican Party and one-time member of the Republican National Committee‘s (RNC) executive committee.
They are starting informally, organizers said, with fewer than 20 influential Hispanic Republicans. And they are reaching out to activists around the country, who are reeling from a party they see as turning its back on a swing constituency.
Group member Leonard Rodriguez, President Bush’s head of Hispanic outreach in the 2000 campaign and later an adviser at the White House, said the GOP made great strides in wooing the Hispanic voting bloc in 2000 and 2004. But in 2006, when the debate turned to immigration, the rhetoric turned nasty and the community turned away from the party.
“We really went backwards,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez pointed to defections of Hispanic Republicans to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s (D) presidential campaign, like that of Lionel Sosa, a former aide to Bush who went to advise Richardson. Rodriguez noted conservative Hispanics felt the GOP betrayed them by demonizing immigrants — a group that was once lauded as examples of the American Dream.
Now, with President-elect Barack Obama having secured about 66 percent of the Hispanic vote to Republican John McCain’s 33 percent — and having won the electoral votes of the heavily Hispanic states of Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada — Rodriguez says “there’s still a big segment of the party that doesn’t get it.”
Rodriguez said that at meetings like last week’s Republican Governors Association, a lot of white faces are talking about what the party needs to do to again win favor with the Hispanic community, but they aren’t talking with or listening to Hispanics.
“You’ve got a lot of Anglos talking about what needs to be done with the Hispanic community,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez remembered when he and his longtime friend Noe Garcia, another veteran of the Bush White House and the man who helped shepherd former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) through the contentious 2006 immigration debate, were finally brought on to try and help McCain win the critical Hispanic voting bloc.
At that time the Arizona Republican, who had delighted Hispanics by taking the lead on the immigration debate even as he outraged some party conservatives, was polling at about 23 percent of the bloc. When they finished their work, Rodriguez said, they were able to push the number back up to about 33 percent.
Garcia said the “disconnect” between the party and the community should never have happened. Garcia and others contacted for this story point to polling that shows Hispanics overwhelmingly disapprove of abortion and gay marriage, but they claim Hispanics voted for Obama on “faith.”
“Sen. McCain did all the right things and simply could not cut through the clutter,” Garcia said. “We need to stop the bleeding. To stop the bleeding, we need to go directly to the source.”
And they believe that can happen in the 2012 election.
Several group members said they are hopeful that Obama’s presidency will provide a roadmap for Hispanics back to the GOP. Because he was a freshman senator with a relatively thin record, they said, Hispanics voted for him partly on “faith” and partly because he wasn’t a Republican.
They said they will be watching closely to see if Obama tries to tackle immigration reform in the first 100 days of his presidency.
But as the group prepares to meet to discuss its future, there already appears to be some division.
Garcia and Rodriguez both said they favor working within the party — Garcia said they plan to be heavily involved in the RNC’s chairman’s race — but others said they would be willing to bypass the party and go directly to the community if the leadership isn’t listening or showing a willingness to act.
“Despite the hard right, we’ll take charge and do what we have to do to reach out to the Hispanic community and get our message out,” said one participant, who asked that his name not be used, adding that the Republican Party has to “atone” for the rhetoric of some in the party like Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).
Part of that message, participants said, is reminding the Hispanic community of the GOP’s position on social issues and taxes, two messages McCain favored that never won out over the memory of rhetoric used by Republican members like Tancredo.
Rafael Bejar, an associate professor at George Washington University and a group member and former director of Hispanic Coalitions for the RNC, said that Democrats were able to use “the specter of Tancredo” effectively to turn Hispanics away from Republicans. Bejar said he wants to work with Republican leaders like RNC chairman hopeful and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, someone Bejar said understands the importance of minority outreach.
The group is united by the belief that Hispanics share the “social and economic values” of the Republican Party. Almost every group member contacted for this story mentioned the way Hispanics in California voted for Obama but also against gay marriage with Proposition 8. That, they said, is evidence that the Hispanic community is still aligned with the Republican Party on social issues, and thus not lost forever.
Garcia, Rodriguez and Lopez all suggested ways the party can start coming back, from more focused recruitment of Hispanic candidates and helping them win primaries to promoting Hispanic leaders like Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) to meaningful leadership positions in the Senate instead of impotent roles, such as the one Martinez endured as the symbolic head of the RNC.
For now, Garcia said, the dialogue has to start with recognizing and accepting the mistakes of the past, then moving forward with a commitment to reaching out and winning back Hispanic voters.
“If there’s a silver lining, we know where our mistakes are, and they’re correctible,” Garcia said. “It may take a cycle or two, but they are correctible.”