Anti-immigration conservatives are subjecting U.S. Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain to blistering attacks over their pivotal role in the comprehensive immigration bill currently on life support in Congress. But if they get their way and the bill dies, so too may Republican electoral prospects for the foreseeable future.
Hispanic support for Republican candidates plummeted by 10 points, to 30 percent from 40 percent, between the 2004 presidential election to the 2006 congressional election debacle, costing the GOP as many as four congressional seats. In next year's presidential election, Hispanic votes could make the difference in four Western states, including Arizona. If Republicans continue chasing Hispanic voters away, they can kiss their national electoral prospects goodbye.
The best way to reverse the trend is to get the immigration issue behind us as quickly as possible. Hispanic Americans are conservative on most social issues, including immigration, making them a natural constituency, or at least open to voting, for Republicans. But what Hispanics saw in Republicans who made the 2006 elections a referendum on deporting illegal immigrants was a face of hostility.
The GOP didn't reap a huge windfall by going nativist. Even among voters most energized by the immigration issue, Republican candidates edged out Democrats by a paltry 3 percent, hardly the political tsunami anti-immigration activists forecast. Overall, voters preferred comprehensive immigration reform to an enforcement-only approach by 57 percent to 38 percent.
The immigration bill is far from perfect, but it is the best that those who support strict enforcement possibly can hope for in this or any Congress in the foreseeable future. Notably, according to a New York Times poll, the principles reflected in the bill are supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans. The alternative is to allow the issue to fester, which is a recipe not only for continued societal division, but for an ever-shrinking share of the vote for Republicans.
Hispanics already represent over 17 percent of Arizona's registered voters. They will continue growing in electoral strength, even if the borders are sealed and all illegal immigrants deported. That is because a hugely disproportionate number of Hispanic American citizens are below voting age, and voter registration and participation are lower among Hispanics than for other groups. As the Hispanic citizen population ages, and if registration and voting levels increase even a little, the Hispanic share of the electorate will grow substantially.
That means regardless of one's take on immigration issues, Republican outreach to Hispanics is vital. Even if the GOP cannot attract a majority of Hispanic voters, the difference between a 30 and 40 percent share of an ever-growing segment of the electorate can determine election outcomes. Were Hispanics to follow African-Americans in voting for Democrats at levels of 90 percent or greater, Republicans would consign themselves to permanent minority-party status.
That needn't happen. Hispanic voters are not firmly attached to either party, and they have voted in sizable numbers for GOP candidates who appeal on values that Hispanics share. Hispanic registered voters who call themselves conservatives outnumber liberals by 34 percent to 26 percent. They hold strongly conservative views on such social issues as abortion and gay marriage. Most Hispanics walk the walk: deeply religious, family values (fewer than 8 percent of Hispanic adults are divorced), hard work, entrepreneurship and the quest for betterment of future generations through education. Newcomers tend to be even more conservative and less attached to the Democratic Party than existing citizens.
4 tangible strategies
All those factors led Ronald Reagan, who fared well among Hispanic voters, to quip, "Latinos are Republican. They just don't know it yet." Judging from paltry outreach efforts, with the notable exception of the Bush 2004 re-election campaign, Republicans haven't figured it out, either. Republicans can attract Hispanic voters not by abandoning core beliefs but playing to their strengths.
Here are four tangible strategies:
Get the immigration issue behind. Registered Hispanic voters often take conservative positions on immigration issues. In 2004, 47 percent supported Proposition 200, which required proof of citizenship for government benefits. Last year, 48 percent voted to make English the official language. But both substance and rhetoric on immigration issues matter to Hispanic voters.
Polls show that Hispanic voters will support any preconditions to legal immigration, including forcing illegal immigrants to return to their native countries for a time, so long as a path to citizenship is created. Hispanics tend to doubt the motives of those who argue for enforcement-only policies and, as a result, believe overwhelmingly that Democrats are more sensitive to their needs than Republicans.
Still, they are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to candidates who propose solutions to the immigration impasse, even if the path to citizenship is difficult. Hence, even while enforcement-only advocates such as Rep. J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf were losing GOP congressional seats to Democrats, Hispanics gave 41 percent of their votes to Kyl, who supports strong border enforcement but also an ultimate path to citizenship.
Get religion. The best common denominator for Republicans and Hispanics is religion. Two major recent studies found that religion is central to the lives and political beliefs of most Hispanics and that their approach to religion is deeply conservative. Most Hispanics pray at least once a day and attend church at least once a month; nearly half of Hispanic Catholics, twice as many as other Catholics, believe the Bible is the literal word of God.
Over two-thirds of Hispanics are Catholic, while 15 percent are Protestant. But an overwhelming number are associated with "renewalist" churches: charismatic, evangelical or pentecostal. Over half of both Hispanic Catholics and Protestants attend renewalist churches, compared with 10 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics and 20 percent of Protestants. Hispanics who are deeply religious tend to be more conservative in their political beliefs and active voters. Yet an overwhelming majority say they have never been asked by a religious leader or organization to engage on political issues.
Aggressively promote school choice. Hispanics consistently rank education as one of the top issues of concern but currently favor Democrats on the issue by more than 2-1.
Republicans can change that equation by championing school choice among Hispanic families and voters.
Surveys show that Hispanics favor school vouchers by wide margins, both in Arizona and nationally. A path-breaking May 2007 national survey of registered Hispanic voters found that a candidate's support or opposition for school choice can influence voting decisions, even across party lines. Nearly two-thirds of Hispanics, including 63 percent of Democrats, say they would be more inclined to vote for a candidate who supports school choice over one who opposes it. Of enormous political salience is that 38 percent of Hispanic Democrats report they would vote across party lines to do so. The message is clear: As Gov. Jeb Bush did successfully in Florida, Republicans can reap substantial electoral gains by taking the school-choice message to Hispanic voters and make clear their opponents' opposition to expanded educational opportunities for Hispanic schoolchildren.
?Ã¡ Reach out for real. Hispanic voters often are packed into heavily Democratic voting districts where they hear few messages from Republicans. In 2004, supporters of President Bush sponsored thousands of Spanish-language advertisements in swing states, focusing on such issues as traditional marriage, tax breaks for families and small businesses, school choice and faith-based social initiatives. In the states with targeted advertising, the share of Hispanics voting Republican increased by 7.6 percent from 2000, while the percentage in other states remained constant.
Hispanic Republicans have won significant offices in Florida, New Mexico, New York and elsewhere. But in Arizona, the GOP seems decidedly unwelcoming: There are few Hispanic Republican officeholders across the state, and even conservative Hispanics cannot win contested primaries against opponents sounding anti-immigration themes. Unless Republicans are prepared to write off a large, growing and instinctively conservative share of the electorate, they need to work aggressively to recruit Hispanic candidates who share Republican values and to reach out to Hispanic voters on issues of mutual concern.
The first step toward that end may be the comprehensive immigration bill supported by our state's two Republican senators. McCain and Kyl are investing enormous political capital to put this difficult and divisive issue to rest, in a way that a large majority of Americans believe is fair. If they succeed, it will have the side benefit of retaining for Republicans the ability to reach out to Hispanic voters. If they fail, Arizona Republicans soon may follow the path of the dinosaurs, the 19th-century "Know-Nothings," the California Republican Party and other extinct species, into oblivion.