WASHINGTON, August 1, 2013 — Andy Vidak won a State Senate seat in California last week. The white, male Republican defeated Democrat Leticia Perez in a heavily Democratic and Hispanic senate district.
There are growing indicators that every assumption in the immigration debate may be wrong; those acting on old theories and biased information may be missing opportunities to totally change the political orientation of the Hispanic community.
The signs are there. You see Republican candidates in California confounding political theorists by winning heavily Hispanic districts away from the Democrats with the right strategy. You see innovative young Hispanic politicians in South Texas championing Republican outreach to Hispanic youth. You see the rapid growth of Hispanic Republican activist groups around the country.
It all suggests that the Republican Party has more potential appeal to Hispanic voters, especially those who are younger, than experts consider in their “common wisdom” or is reflected in nationwide polls of likely voters.
Hispanic voters don’t necessarily have a problem with the Republican Party, but the party definitely has a problem figuring out how to reach out to them in ways they respond to. Some smart politicians in heavily Hispanic areas like Andy Videk in California and Jerry Patterson in Texas have figured it out, but the party leadership seems incapable of picking up on what they have learned.
This problem is demonstrated most clearly in two areas. First, the failure of comprehensive immigration reform and second, the failure of the Republican Party to capitalize on opportunities to engage in effective outreach.
There is a lot of pressure from the media, from unions and from pro-immigration groups to convince Republicans that the only way to have any chance with Hispanic voters in the future is to pass the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration reform bill. Everyone knows that the outspoken nativists on the right don’t much like the bill. What isn’t as well known is that many Hispanics, especially Hispanic Republicans lack confidence in the bill as well.
Artemio Muniz is Chairman of the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans, a partisan activist group which represents a growing population of younger Hispanic Republicans, many of them first or second generation immigrants. He expresses their dissatisfaction with the complexity and red tape in the proposed immigration bill, commenting “the guest worker part, the whole high skill low skill thing is infuriating … people want to just work in peace. Many don’t want citizenship but for those who do and who are willing to do whatever it takes to become citizens, the process shouldn’t be so crazy.”
The current immigration bill seems designed to win corporate and union support for Democrats while neglecting the needs of small businesses and immigrants who just want to come here to work in a free market and start small businesses to employ more immigrants without too much red tape. If Republican legislators in the House are paying attention, they should go home and talk to Hispanic voters over the August recess and come back with simpler and more relevant solutions to the immigration issue to offer as an alternative to the Senate bill.
The Republican party leadership at the Republican National Committee and in state parties also seems to be having a problem figuring out what to do about the Hispanic vote.
Andy Vidak and Jerry Patterson are two middle-aged, white, Republican politicians, but they have connected with Hispanic voters because they talk about opportunity, prosperity and treating everyone the same regardless of their background.
As one of the few elected Republicans in south Texas, Mayor Art Martinez de Vara observes that “the Republican Party appeals to the young Hispanic voter most when its goals are the fulfillment of the civil rights movement: prosperity, liberty, and a non-racial society.”
Artemio Muniz emphasizes the same issues:
“Once our Republican Party repairs it’s brand by fixing immigration, the prototypical Hispanic young voter will get the sense that we are a welcoming party who accepts all individuals to compete in the the free market. Then we can introduce our GOP as the party of limitless economic opportunity, where your money is respected, and success is not punished or ‘hated’ on.”
Similarly, Linda Vega, founder of the conservative group Latinos Ready to Vote, who represents a somewhat different constituency within the Hispanic community, puts the emphasis on prosperity:
“When the GOP talks to the youth we focus on the economic prosperity of the U.S. and the future of emerging markets. Within that same message, the youth should seize the opportunity to learn about economic opportunity rather than depend and fixate on the policies that will stagnate their market and their skills.”
Prosperity is the common thread. Legal or illegal, most Mexican immigrants don’t come here to go on welfare or join unions. They come here to obtain the opportunity, prosperity and upward mobility which they are denied at home.
That’s a winning message that fits with Republican values, but it’s not the one which the party leadership is pushing. It doesn’t fit well with their worn out and increasingly failing political formula. Young Hispanics and immigrants are less socially conservative and much more motivated by immediate economic concerns: jobs, taxes and regulation. The party establishment is still tailoring their message to a much older and less accessible Hispanic demographic, falling back on the same old patterns of token outreach.
Local Republican Parties make their connections to the local Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, groups which are full of long time residents who have have larger and well established businesses with little connection to the immigrant community. They aren’t much different from the typical Republican party base, except that they have been in partnership with the Democratic Party establishment for years and aren’t likely to change.
The RNC’s inclination is to hire the wrong people. They go to consultants and in this case turned to hiring professional political strategist and former Bush White House staff member Jennifer Sevilla Korn to work on Hispanic outreach. She doesn’t have the answers they need. She’s part of their professional political class which is far out of touch with the grassroots of the party and the young Hispanic population and recent immigrants.
The party leaders hire people like themselves who are nominally Hispanic, rather than hiring from the demographic they are trying to reach. It’s awfully close to tokenism and kind of insulting.
The party also needs to take a firm hand in addressing passive bigotry and the influence of nativist organizations. As Muniz points out, the message the party sends is “we love bootstrappers and hard workers who do whatever it takes to pursue their dream, just not if they are from Mexico because then they are stealing our jobs.” He believes that “removing this protectionist, hypocritical stigma from our party brand will go very far in allowing the Republican message to finally reach the hearts and minds of young Hispanic voters.”
Groups like the Center for Immigration Studies, NumbersUSA and Judicial Watch are all part of the same nativist network. They all work together and lie about the effects of immigration and the character of the immigrant population. Perhaps the biggest harm they have done is to convince Republicans that immigrants hold values which make them suitable only to become clients of the Democrats’ welfare state. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Republican activists and politicians who actually work with younger legal and illegal immigrants have discovered a very different reality. These are people who want desperately to work and be productive and contribute to our society. They don’t want to be forced into unions or pigeonholed into any social or economic category. They want to live free in the freest nation on earth, and what could be more American or more Republican than that?
It’s time for ineffective party leaders to step out of the way and let a younger generation of Hispanic Republicans take the lead and show them how to connect with a huge potential constituency that they are letting slip away.
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