Republicans Seeking Hispanic Votes Risk Immigration Backlash

Mitt Romney likes Arizona’s law mandating that employers verify workers’ immigration status so much that he’d push to make it national. Rick Santorum has suggested he’d be willing to split up families if some members are in the U.S. illegally. Both want tougher border security.

While those messages may win votes in the Republican presidential primaries, they’re likely to face a chillier reception during the general election in battleground states such as Nevada (STONV1) and Colorado (ST0CO1), where the Hispanic population has surged. Even some Republicans warn the party will pay a price for antagonizing the nation’s fastest-growing minority group.

“Republicans have done a mystifying job of either ignoring or offending Hispanic voters,” said Mark McKinnon, a strategist who worked for former President George W. Bush. “And the consequences for the general election are likely to be significant and perhaps determinative to the outcome.”

Hispanics are the nation’s largest ethnic minority, making up 16 percent of the population, a number the Census Bureau projects will grow to 30 percent by 2050.

Barack Obama won 67 percent of their vote in the 2008 presidential race, compared with 31 percent for Republican John McCain, exit polls showed. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said Republicans have to win closer to 40 percent in 2012 or risk being “consigned to minority status.”

Bigger Share

“By 2020, I would like to see us where the Hispanic vote is a swing vote in the country in the same way the Catholic vote is,” Gillespie said in an interview in his Alexandria, Virginia, office. He is trying to recruit at least 100 Hispanic candidates to run for state legislatures across the U.S. as part of a strategy “to get an increasing share of an increasing share of the vote for Republicans.”

That increasing share of the electorate is evident in some of the most competitive states.

In Colorado, the Hispanic population has grown about 40 percent since 2000 and now makes up more than one-fifth of the residents, census data show. Latino Decisions, a research group, estimates they make up 11 percent of registered Colorado voters.

In Nevada, Hispanics comprise more than a quarter of the population, and in Virginia 8 percent. The Hispanic population in North Carolina grew 111 percent in the last decade; Hispanics now make up 8 percent of the population and what Latino Decisions estimates are 3 percent of registered voters.

‘Balancing Act’

Obama won all four states in 2008, so it could be costly for Republicans to alienate any part of the electorate there.

“It’s going to be a difficult balancing act for the Republican nominee to be both hard-line on immigration control but then to reach out to Hispanic families,” said Kenneth Bickers, chairman of the political science department at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The Republican candidates’ difficulty with Hispanic voters was underscored by the reaction to comments Santorum made to a San Juan newspaper during a campaign swing in Puerto Rico before the March 18 primary. He said Puerto Ricans would “have to speak English” as a “condition for entering the union.” Puerto Ricans will vote in a November referendum on statehood.

“If the people of Puerto Rico want to commit to becoming a member of, a state within the United States, then they have to fully commit to being a state, which is to be fully integrated into society,” Santorum said in the interview.

On March 15, a day after the interview and after one of his supporters there, Oreste Ramos, told El Vocero he would no longer back Santorum, the candidate said Puerto Ricans should be able to speak both English and Spanish to become a state.

Hispanic Outreach

In January, the Republican National Committee hired a director of Hispanic outreach, said spokeswoman Alexandra Franceschi. Still, she said, the committee has no one on the ground yet in competitive states to recruit Hispanic voters, who made up 9 percent of the 2008 electorate, exit polls show.

By contrast, Obama’s re-election campaign has been recruiting Spanish-speaking volunteers and using Spanish- language voter-registration forms and phone banks since last summer in battleground states. The campaign also has a Spanish- language website, and seven of the president’s 35 national campaign co-chairmen are Hispanic.

Crackdown Pledge

The Republicans, seeking to attract white voters -- including working-class people without college degrees -- have roiled many Hispanics with a drumbeat of pledges to crack down on illegal immigration.

During presidential debates, Romney and Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, have said they support Arizona’s law requiring employers to use a database to verify that workers are legal. In January, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign ran a radio ad in Florida accusing Romney of being “anti-immigrant.” Gingrich was attacked by Romney for his proposal to offer a path to citizenship for some law-abiding, English-speaking illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for 25 years.

Seventy-two percent of Hispanics said the Republican Party either doesn’t care much about them or is “hostile,” according to a Latino Decisions poll in January for Univision and ABC News.

Back to 67%

“If the Republican nominee in the general election continues to say that the only way to resolve the issue of immigration is for undocumenteds to go back to their home country, then I think Obama can get back to the 67 percent he got in 2008,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington group that encourages Hispanics to back Republicans.

Alberto Martinez, a Romney campaign spokesman, said Hispanics will support the former Massachusetts governor because he has the best plan to improve the economy.

“Hispanics are not one-issue voters,” he said in a statement. “Pandering to them on the issue of immigration, as President Obama is doing and as some Republicans have done in the past, is a mistake.”

J. Hogan Gidley, Santorum’s senior political adviser, said in an e-mailed statement that Santorum’s “personal story resonates with all voters, including the Hispanic community, because Rick is the grandson of an immigrant who came to this country -- like so many others -- in search of a better life, in search for freedom.”

“Rick believes legal immigration should be the goal, and we need to clearly articulate that message,” he said.

‘Biggest Disappointment’

Obama also has angered Hispanic voters.

In 2008, he promised to make an immigration overhaul, including a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, a priority; he never introduced legislation. And he called the failure of the Dream Act, which would provide permanent residency to most college graduates and military veterans who arrived in the U.S. as children illegally, “maybe my biggest disappointment.”

Activists are upset with Obama for deporting more illegal immigrants than his predecessor, Bush, did -- 396,906 in fiscal year 2011, compared with 291,060 in 2007. The administration says more criminals are being sent home.

J. Walter Tejada, the vice chairman of Virginia’s Arlington County Board, who volunteers for Obama’s campaign, called the president’s deportation policy “a sore, sore, big, big issue” among Hispanics.

At a March 6 press conference, Obama said he hasn’t been able to get an immigration bill through Congress “because what used to be a bipartisan agreement that we should fix this ended up becoming a partisan issue.”

Contraception Rule

His February announcement requiring health insurers to cover contraception coverage for women employed at religious- affiliated institutions could rally some Catholic Hispanics to the Republican Party, said Aguilar.

“It’s going to be very difficult for Latinos to make a choice,” said Aguilar. “Here are Republicans who haven’t engaged us, and we see Arizona and we see Romney saying these terrible things, and here’s a president who’s just playing politics.”

Gabriela Domenzain, an Obama campaign spokeswoman, said Hispanics should vote for the president because he made it possible for millions of uninsured Hispanics to get coverage through his health-care law and he fought to pass the Dream Act. Republicans would cut education funding, veto the Dream Act “and are proudly standing by the most extreme anti-immigrant voices,” she said.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said his party has to focus on working-class white voters as its “natural constituents.”

At the same time, Republicans are “wasting” an opportunity to reach out to Hispanics, he said.

“If we don’t pay closer attention and get in front of this train we will definitely be run over by it,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kate Andersen Brower in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at

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