The GOP's Hispanic Problem

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As immigration becomes a flash point in the Republican presidential primary, Hispanic activists fear the party is squandering its future chances

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LAS VEGAS -- It was your typical sedate panel of Republican talking heads -- until local Hispanic activists in the audience rose up in revolt.

"The Democrats are kicking our behinds out there!" one man shouted. "The Republican leadership has to do something, has to send a message to our community!"

A woman pleaded, "What should be the message on immigration? Please, give us a talking point!" Another woman pointed to the rest of the audience to make the point that the conference hadn't sought Hispanic participation: "How many Latinos from Las Vegas are sitting here? How many?"

It was a remarkable scene, and a perfect illustration of the bind the GOP is in.

Its presidential candidates increasingly are demagoguing the immigration issue to stoke the passions of the overwhelmingly white base. But in the process, Hispanic Republicans fear, they are killing their chances at general-election victory by alienating the fastest-growing group of American voters.

The panel, a Thursday session of the Western Republican Leadership Conference that kicked off with Tuesday's debate, assembled five prominent national Hispanic Republicans, who were full of feel-good talk about tapping Latino voters' natural conservative inclinations.

Led by Manny Rosales, a former George W. Bush administration appointee and Republican National Committee official, the panelists paid airy tribute to Hispanics' entrepreneurial spirit, work ethic and love of family.

Rosario Marin, who served as U.S. Treasurer under Bush, said her own story -- a Mexican immigrant who couldn't speak English when she came to the U.S. as a teenager -- was testament to the power of the American dream of economic opportunity. But as the economy has faltered -- a phenomenon she pinned on President Obama -- that dream has dimmed, she said.

"If Latinos just vote their values, vote what they believe, they would vote Republican," Marin said.

But the panelists didn't ignore the reality: The Republican Party cannot afford to cede the Hispanic vote to the Democrats.

George W. Bush got over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, Rosales noted, while John McCain barely cleared 30 percent in 2008. "If we don't do 45 percent at least, we're in trouble, not only for this cycle but also for the future," he said.

An avalanche of statistics backs him up. Fifty thousand Hispanics turn 18 every month. They are the fastest growing group nationally, with an especially large presence in the Western swing states of Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Though historically they haven't always turned out to vote, that's changing. Strong Hispanic turnout is credited for some of Democrats' few victories in 2010 -- Sens. Michael Bennet in Colorado, Harry Reid in Nevada and Barbara Boxer in California, as well as California Gov. Jerry Brown. If the trend continues, Republicans can forget about California for good, and Democrats could one day be competitive in Texas.

But Democrats don't own the Hispanic vote. "Latinos are really angry at President Obama because he pandered to them," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Washington-based Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. "He said he was going to pass immigration reform as a priority in his first year." Instead, he used his Democratic majority in Congress to push through health-care reform and economic stimulus -- and never got around to immigration.

Aguilar found it necessary to establish his conservative credentials before getting into the awkward message he had to deliver -- that the Republican Party's stance and rhetoric on immigration are turning off Hispanics.

Aguilar is another Bush administration appointee and, he swore, a strong conservative on fiscal and social issues. "I'm not a RINO," he said -- a Republican In Name Only. The truly free-market position on immigration, he said, would be to allow more of it.

"Our nation has a need for foreign workers, and if American employers cannot find American workers to do certain types of jobs, big government should not be telling them they cannot recruit and hire the foreign workers they need," he said. "But we have to create the mechanisms for foreign workers to come here legally." That means a guest worker program and probably also some kind of legalization for immigrants currently in the country illegally.

That, however, is not something any of the presidential candidates are advocating.

Instead, the GOP presidential candidates have strained to outdo each other in getting tough on illegal immigration. Herman Cain has said he wants to build an electrified fence on the border -- he later said he was joking. Michele Bachmann advocates two fences, one inside the other. Rick Perry has been attacked for allowing illegal immigrants in Texas to pay in-state college tuition rates, which his rivals call a taxpayer handout to lawbreakers. In turn, he attacked Mitt Romney on Tuesday for having had illegal immigrants work on his property in Massachusetts.

All this tough talk, and measures like the recently implemented immigration law in Alabama, may be aimed only at illegal immigrants. But Hispanic voters -- who are, of course, U.S. citizens -- increasingly feel like they are all under suspicion.

One of Thursday's panelists, Jose Cuevas Jr., is a fourth-generation Texan, owner of a thriving Midland-based restaurant chain called JumBurrito, and a Perry appointee to the state's Alcoholic Beverage Commission. He has raised tens of thousands of dollars for GOP candidates over the years. But he's nearing the end of his rope.

The new laws being proposed, he said, mean he's more likely to get pulled over and asked to prove he's legal just because of the way he looks, even though he's as much a citizen as his neighbors. "That makes me mad," he said on the panel.

In an interview, Cuevas recalled being at a GOP event in 2008 and having a woman ask him, "What are we going to do about all these Mexicans coming over the border?"

"I said, 'Which ones?' She said, 'The ones who are taking all our jobs.' I said, 'Well, tell me which jobs and I'll make sure you get one.' That didn't make her real happy," Cuevas recalled. "Then she said, 'I hate going to the grocery store and seeing English and Spanish. This is America, it should be English-only.' I said, 'But isn't that free enterprise at its best? They know who their customers are, and they're competing to reach those customers.' That didn't make her real happy either.

"Finally, she said, 'You speak English real good. Where'd you learn it?' I said, 'I'm an American. I learned it right here.' And then she walked away."

Cuevas supports Perry and thought it was "fantastic" that he went after Romney's "hypocrisy" on immigration. Too many in the GOP, he said, profess not to tolerate illegal immigrants -- except when it comes to the ones working in their factories, or mowing their lawns, or caring for their children.

The candidates and national leaders of the party, he said, have got to do a better job setting a civil tone and reining in the "intolerant right." Instead, they're silent.

"I've done a lot of fundraising for a lot of Republican politicians," Cuevas said. But if the current rhetoric continues, "I will not work for them, I will not pick up the phone, I will not sign a letter -- I'm done. If they can't stand with me, I will not stand with them."

Cuevas' anger doesn't bode well for the GOP, he noted. "You've just got to do the math," he said. "If you alienate Latinos, particularly people like me -- I've been a Republican all my life -- we stop winning elections for good in four to six years."

The activists who yelled at the panelists were largely saying the same thing. One of them, Tibi Ellis, helped found the Nevada Republican Hispanic Caucus and the national Latinas for McCain group in 2008. In 2010, she ran for state Assembly, losing a close GOP primary.

This year, the Venezuelan-born Ellis changed her voter registration from Republican to nonpartisan.

Republicans have an "amazing opportunity" with Hispanics, she said, but they don't seem interested in exploiting it. There's no plan and no leadership to take advantage of the opening, and no one at the top levels telling Hispanics they're welcome in the GOP -- in fact, it's the opposite.

What, Ellis was asked, did Republicans do to drive her away? "Put it this way," she said. "They didn't do anything to keep me."

Image credit: Getty Images/John Moore

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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