Latinos are, without a doubt, today's Reagan Democrats. Their values are conservative values. They can, in fact, become a great asset to the conservative movement. But, what is more, Latinos hold the mathematical key to victory in a growing slate of local, state, and national elections.
The GOP's 2016 candidate can only win the presidency if he earns at least 40 percent of the national Latino vote and similar percentages in battleground states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Is the GOP committed to winning enough Latino voter support to capture the White House in 2016? If the answer is yes, then they need to do three things:
First, the Republicans need to show up. The GOP and conservative organizations need to urgently establish a permanent presence in Hispanic communities across the country, especially in those battleground states where the Latino vote is decisive. Republicans cannot expect to get Latino votes if they begin engaging Latino communities only two months before an election. This is not only ineffective, it's very offensive to Hispanic voters who rightly feel that such an approach amounts to simple pandering in a time of political need. Yet, this has been the standard practice of Republicans for at least the past two presidential-election cycles.
The good news is that the Republican National Committee is stepping up its game early and has already established a network of campaign operatives in key states that are proactively reaching out to Latinos. Moreover, there are national conservative Latino organizations like the American Principles Project's Latino Partnership, the Libre Initiative, and the Media Research Center Latino, which launched last month.
These organizations are engaged in grassroots work, trying to make inroads within the community, and encouraging Latinos to support conservative candidates and causes. The Media Research Center Latino will also aggressively engage, monitor, and critique liberal bias in Spanish-language media, an entryway to millions of Latino homes. That is increasingly important work because the Univision TV Network alone reaches 97 percent of all Hispanic households in the country.
Second, the GOP needs to lead on immigration. Polls show that immigration is not the most important issue for Latinos, but it's still of great significance to them. If the GOP doesn't get it right, Latinos are simply not going to listen to anything else the party and its candidates have to say, as attractive as their positions on a number of other issues may be. Even having a presence in the Latino community will mean nothing if Republicans don't deal with immigration constructively.
As Sen. Rand Paul stated recently, "[Latinos are] not going to care whether we go to the same church, or have the same values, or believe in the same kind of future of our country until we get beyond that [immigration]. Showing up helps, but you got to show up and you got to say something, and it has to be different from what we've been saying."
Properly addressing immigration doesn't mean, as some rabid restrictionists like to argue, that the GOP has to move to the "left" on the issue. To the contrary, the GOP should reclaim the immigration issue based on the conservative values that it has always defended, like the central role of the family and the effectiveness of the free market.
After all, conservatives believe that big government is responsible for creating the immense population of undocumented immigrants that live in America today. Congress has arbitrarily set up work-visa quotas that don't reflect the needs of our labor market. And since American businesses need foreign workers to do labor-intensive jobs that Americans don't want or for which there are no Americans of working age to fill, foreign migrants keep coming in illegally. Why should the government tell a U.S business owner who cannot find American workers for his farm or factory that he cannot bring the workers he desperately needs from abroad?
On this issue, however, there has also been progress. While House Republicans don't want to tackle immigration reform this year, as they are concerned that it may derail their chances of taking back the Senate later this year, there seems to be consensus among their ranks that they should take it on in 2015. Moreover, the House Leadership has produced a set of immigration principles to guide the debate which have been warmly received by most Republicans members. They include creating more market-oriented guest-worker programs and a path to legal status for the undocumented.
Finally, the GOP must follow a broad integrated message. Contrary to what many "establishment" strategists would argue, Republicans are not going to win the Latino vote just by talking about a static set of economic issues, particularly small businesses and entrepreneurship. Don't get me wrong: this should be part of the pitch to Latinos. Hispanics are extremely entrepreneurial, as evidenced by the fact that we are opening businesses at a rate three times as fast as the national average .
Nonetheless, the majority of Latinos are not business owners. They are employees who work for someone else, much like the majority of working-class Americans. The GOP must articulate a more populist economic message that resonates with middle- and low-income Hispanic families. The party would fare better with Latinos by showing how conservative policies can help reverse the rise in the price of day-to-day expenses, such as gas and food.
I believe that Obamacare is now one of those pocketbook issues that is beginning to rile up Latinos. They are coming to realize that there's nothing free about the health care law, as many liberals led them to believe. Conservatives know that many are going to face the burden of a new monthly payment that they were not expecting. And if recent stories in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today are any indication, many, perhaps even the majority, will have to pay higher premiums for their health care coverage.
It's no wonder that according to the most recent Pew Research Center poll, only 47 percent of Latinos now support Obamacare, down from 61 percent in September of 2013. And the same share of Latinos — 47 percent — already disapprove of it.
In addition, Republicans should not abandon social issues. The majority of Hispanics are pro-life and believe in traditional marriage and are turned off by the radical and aggressive agenda of the Left.
The only way Republicans can become viable again nationally is by bringing more Latinos into their ranks. This won't be easy, but it's not impossible if Republicans directly engage Latinos in their communities with a broad message that is welcoming of immigrants, resonates with working-class Hispanics, and emphasizes the importance of faith and family. The 2016 election will show us if the GOP does what is needed to make substantial inroads with this key constituency.
Alfonso Aguilar is executive director of American Principles Project's Latino Partnership and former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the George W. Bush administration.
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This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.