Since the 2012 election, many Republicans have ramped up efforts to engage Latino voters, whom Mitt Romney lost by more than 40 percentage points that year. But progress on Hispanic engagement has been slow and could unravel easily—one reason why party leaders are so alarmed about Donald Trump's recent focus and rhetoric on immigration.
Trump stands little chance in the Republican presidential primaries, but the eventual nominee will be an underdog in the fight to win over Latinos in 2016. For some Republican members of Congress, appealing to Latino voters has long been a necessity, not a choice, and they are already sounding the alarm for the presidential campaigns.
"If a Republican candidate doesn't outperform Governor Romney on Hispanic support, it's going to be very difficult to win," said freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo, whose South Florida district is nearly 70 percent Latino.
The effort starts with getting out in front of Latino voters immediately and starting to build a long-term relationship, according to Rep. Mike Coffman, who represents a melting-pot district outside of Denver. Coffman, a one-time immigration hard-liner, has softened his tone in the last few years and made an effort in both his campaign and official duties to engage with minority communities. That, Coffman says, is the only way to "break the narrative" that Republicans are anti-immigrant.
"It's not just about getting in there while you're running for office, it's about being there when you're in office after the election," Coffman said. "I was shocked by how deep [the anti-immigrant narrative] is among these immigrant groups, much deeper than Republicans think here in Washington, D.C. So I think it's just very important to be in those communities."
President Obama carried both Curbelo's district and Coffman's district in 2008 and 2012. In fact, even as Obama's nationwide share of the vote dropped in 2012, Curbelo's district was one of a handful of areas—many of them heavily Hispanic—where Obama improved relative to 2008. But Coffman survived his 2012 reelection and breezed to victory in the 2014 midterms, while Curbelo was elected to his first term by a narrow margin last year.
Curbelo has already endorsed Jeb Bush for president, while Coffman has said he doesn't plan on backing a candidate during the GOP nominating process. But both have advice for the eventual nominee on chasing Latinos' votes in their states and elsewhere next year. In addition to getting involved in Hispanic communities early, both House members counseled the Republican presidential candidates to address immigration reform and, after that, focus on specific policy issues to connect with voters.
Curbelo points to his support for immigration reform as something fellow Republicans should also take up. "In my district, there are a lot of independent Hispanic voters who would be thrilled to support a good Republican nominee because they share our values."
"They can't ignore the need for immigration reform," Coffman said. "I think that's probably the most important thing, and they have to be able to speak and talk about it."
Many Republicans argue that Hispanic voters will agree with them on other issues even if they can disagree on immigration. But Curbelo called immigration reform a gateway issue for Latinos.
"If they feel that the Republican candidate is either anti-immigrant or is not sensitive to this immigration issue, then the Republican nominee won't even have the chance to win those people's votes," Curbelo said.
Curbelo praised both Bush, the candidate he is backing, and home-state Sen. Marco Rubio for "show[ing] a willingness to be constructive on this issue," though Curbelo said he's unsure where Rubio stands on the issue now that his reform bill from the last Congress failed.
But Curbelo also mentioned other presidential hopefuls—including Scott Walker, who just officially announced his campaign—who Curbelo said "have reversed their positions" on immigration reform.
Meanwhile, Coffman said getting into the communities will help the candidates tailor their campaigns to winning Hispanic votes. "You have to have an appeal that brings conservatives along but gets the center in a district like mine," Coffman said. ""¦ By understanding their issues, I think you understand that there's a conservative path that I think really fits within the Republican Party to bring them in, in terms of accomplishing what their aspirations are."
Curbelo said his experience running as an education reformer could be useful. "I had a record of reform on the school board and on helping to improve the quality of education," he said. "And nothing is more important to Hispanic voters than that. Hispanics by and large are people who came to this country to work, to contribute, and to make sure that their children would be better off than they were. That's as American as it gets."