Republicans Woo Hispanic Recruits Amid Immigration Divide

Republicans are intensifying their efforts to recruit more Hispanics into their elected ranks across the country as they push to rebuild the national party and revamp their brand after losses at the polls in 2012.

Ed Gillespie, the former national Republican Party chairman who served as a top adviser to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, today announced the expansion of a campaign he began in 2010 to increase the number of Hispanic state legislators -- something he has argued is necessary to prevent his party from being consigned to minority status by alienating one of the fastest-growing voting constituencies.

The expansion of the Future Majority Project is the latest evidence that Republicans plan to direct resources -- including campaign cash -- to remaking their party into a more broadly appealing one.

“We as a party have to do better in increasing our percentage of the minority vote and of women voters,” Gillespie said today in a conference call detailing the effort. “We’ve been a little bit behind the curve.”

The move to rectify that comes as President Barack Obama presses Congress to consider changes in immigration law that would offer some 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, an effort that has split the Republicans.

Threshold Issue

Some party leaders argue they must embrace a route to legalization -- formerly derided by most Republicans, including Romney, as “amnesty” -- to have a chance at appealing to Hispanic voters in national elections. Yet a vocal faction that includes many members of the U.S. House opposes the move, believing it will enrage core supporters and expand the voting strength of a group more likely to back Democrats.

“Immigration is a threshold issue that’s highly symbolic to Hispanics, both legal and illegal, so handling that well is absolutely crucial, but it’s not sufficient” for Republicans to rebound, said Whit Ayres, a party polling expert. He said it’s equally important for Republicans to persuade voters they have the best strategy for growing the economy.

Recruiting a new generation of Hispanic Republican leaders, Ayres said in an interview, is “absolutely critical, because being able to demonstrate that the Republican Party is a vehicle for Hispanic political success sends a powerful signal that we want you as part of our coalition.”

2012 Setback

It’s no easy task. Gillespie’s group spent $5 million from 2010 to 2012 on the Future Majority Project, which also aimed to elect women, African-Americans and Asian-Americans. Its net gain among Hispanic-American Republican state legislators in 2012 was just one. Of the 125 candidates recruited, 110 lost and 15 won, which barely offset the 14 Hispanic Republican incumbents who either lost or left office in the same year.

Gillespie said 2012 had been a “tough year” in which Republicans had to contend with “a pretty negative environment on the national level,” and predicted that 2014 would be “a much more favorable environment” with higher Hispanic turnout than in past midterm elections.

In the meantime, the immigration debate is threatening to undermine that goal.

“Republicans should be careful not to fall into the amnesty trap,” cautioned Texas Representative Lamar Smith, a former House Judiciary Committee chairman who now sits on its immigration subcommittee. In a statement e-mailed to Bloomberg, he said Democrats want to “lure” Republicans into the immigration debate because they have “done the math and realize that legalization inevitably would mean a net five million or more votes, giving them more victories in future congressional and presidential elections.”

Internal Divide

The divide pits Republicans who are focusing on creating more competitive national elections against those who are in a growing number of safe House seats around the country. Obama received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 re-election, compared with 29 percent who backed Romney.

“There is no problem whatsoever with Republicans being competitive in a great many red states -- Republicans dominate state government up and down the ballot -- so they have a different perspective on political necessity and political challenges,” Ayres said. “One would hope that Republicans in even the deepest-red states would like to be part of a party that is truly nationally competitive and can elect a president of the United States.”

Evident Rift

The rift was evident yesterday. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia came out in favor of granting legal status to undocumented immigrant children brought to the country illegally by their parents. Hours later on Capitol Hill, at the first House hearing this year on immigration, Representative Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican, said the idea of granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants was a divisive one that could undermine the chances of any bipartisan deal on other aspects of immigration policy.

“Whatever else we disagree on, I think we would agree that that’s a more toxic, contentious issue -- granting full amnesty,” Bachus said. He added that he hoped a lack of agreement on the issue wouldn’t prevent enactment of more modest changes such as allowing more highly skilled workers to come to the U.S. legally.

Republican Governor Susana Martinez, who is co-chairing Gillespie’s Hispanic candidate recruitment effort along with Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, said while immigration should not be “the sole issue that defines the Republican Party,” she supports efforts by Senator Marco Rubio and others to collaborate with Democrats on fixing a “broken” system.

Bipartisan Effort

“There’s a lot of space between amnesty and trying to even talk about deporting 11, 12 million people, and there are lots of different solutions for different groups of people, but I think we have to do it together with Democrats,” Martinez said today.

If the opponents of a broad immigration overhaul prevail in the debate or their rhetoric dominates the discourse, no amount of Hispanic recruitment or political infrastructure upgrades within the party will be sufficient to repair its electoral prospects, said recruitment leaders.

“A lot has been said about the tone, about showing diversity, and obviously I think those things are important, but it’s not only the faces and the voices; it’s the policy,” said Alfonso Aguilar, who advised former President George W. Bush on immigration and leads the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, which is pushing for an overhaul. “If we don’t have a policy on immigration that is constructive, we’re not going to make inroads.”

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