Shortly after introduction of the Gang of 8 immigration reform bill this year, Senator John McCain said this about the GOP and the importance of passing immigration reform in order to attract Latino voters:
“I think we can compete,” McCain said. “But if we don’t do this, we can’t begin the conversation with our Hispanic voters, and all you have to do is the math. Do the math on the growth of the Hispanic voters in this country.”
McCain knows first-hand. He lost the Latino vote by a margin of 68% – 32%, after distancing himself from his past advocacy for immigration reform during the 2008 Republican primary season. It was even worse for Mitt Romney in 2012. After vowing to veto the DREAM Act and touting self-deportation, Romney lost Latinos by a 75% – 23% margin.
The power of the Latino voter is only going to increase, and immigration reform has become a core value issue for Latino voters. But not everyone has gotten the memo.
Some conservative talking heads and activists aren’t being shy about their opposition to immigration reform. What is most troubling are some of the reasons expressed for their opposition – raw and paranoid expressions about Latinos and immigrants’ impact on America and national politics. Their assessments are both wrong on the political merits and blatantly offensive. For example, longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schafly said in late May:
The Hispanics who come in like this are going to vote Democrat. There isn’t the slightest bit of evidence that they are going to vote Republican. The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes — the white voters who didn’t vote in the last election. There are millions of them.
As Right Wing Watch documented:
Last month, Schlafly predicted that comprehensive reform would be ‘suicide for the Republican Party’ because immigrants ‘come from a country’ where they expect ‘a handout’ from the government. Last week, she lamented that today’s immigrants are less patriotic than the ‘Irish, Italian, Jewish, etc.’ immigrants of ‘earlier generations.’
After tweeting coverage of that Schafly rant against Hispanics, Ann Coulter tweeted:
As Reagan aide James Baker (allegedly) said of another Dem voting bloc sought by Repubs:“F*** the Jews; they don’t vote for us anyway.”
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) May 30, 2013
Coulter has been consistently vocal (and wrong) about immigration, Latinos, and politics, noting in March 2013, “If amnesty goes through, America becomes California and no Republican will ever win another national election.” Of course, this completely ignores the role of the anti-Latino Proposition 187 in California, in which the backlash from the anti-immigrant law led to Republicans dramatically losing political clout statewide. The national GOP has seemed intent on duplicating this effect in recent election cycles.
And of course there’s Pat Buchanan. Back when he worked for Richard Nixon, he help craft the notorious “Southern Strategy,” which used coded language to attract Southern white voters who did not approve of desegregation and civil rights. Now, Buchanan wants the GOP to engage in a new “Southern Strategy” – on immigrants. As Huffington Post noted in May 2013:
Pat Buchanan thinks the solution for the GOP is to win more of the dwindling pool of white voters. In an article published by the website World Net Daily last week, Buchanan describes increased black voter turnout and Latino demographic growth as a “crisis for the Grand Old Party.” To combat it, the conservative pundit implies that the Republican Party should adopt a new version of the “Southern Strategy” revolving around immigration.”
Thankfully, there’s been helpful pushback against this suggested approach – and the Mitt Romney 2012 campaign is an excellent reminder of its consequences. Last August, Ron Brownstein of National Journal wrote, “Republican strategists clearly feel the weight of trying to assemble a national majority with so little support among minorities that they must win three in five whites.”
An unnamed GOP political strategist told Brownstein of the Romney 2012 campaign and its focus on white voters, “This is the last time anyone will try to do this.” As Brownstein noted ahead of the 2012 presidential election, “A GOP coalition that relies almost entirely on whites could squeeze out one more narrow victory in November. But if Republicans can’t find more effective ways to bridge the priorities of their conservative core and the diversifying Next America, that weight will grow more daunting every year.”
In September of 2012, Brownstein noted in a column entitled “His Original Sin,” that Romney’s run to the right on immigration in the primary was the genesis of his general election problems. Brownstein wrote:
Of all Romney’s primary-season decisions, the most damaging was his choice to repel the challenges from Perry and Gingrich by attacking them from the right—and using immigration as his cudgel. That process led Romney to embrace a succession of edgy, conservative positions anathema to many Hispanics, including denouncing Texas for providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants; praising Arizona’s immigration-enforcement law; and, above all, promising to make life so difficult for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants that they would “self-deport.” Although Romney this week tried to soften his tone, polls show Obama attracting at least the 67 percent of Latinos that he attracted in 2008, despite Hispanics’ double-digit unemployment. Weaver, like other GOP strategists, worries that Romney has placed the GOP “on the precipice” of losing Hispanics for a generation.
Conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post has also been on the case, writing recently:
The assumption that the GOP can never win Hispanic voters is so wrong. People change and the country changes (as we saw with the eye-popping data on women as breadwinners). If parties don’t change, they die. And it is that fear of irrelevance that may be the best asset for Republican immigration reformers. I met recently with a Republican Hispanic leader who said, “If you care about the rest of the agenda — limited government, the life issue, the Supreme Court, taxes — then you better be for immigration reform.” What he meant was that the GOP can’t survive without changing on this issue and appealing to nonwhite voters. Honest Republicans actually in office or running for office know this as well, which is why, against all odds, immigration reform might pass.
Earlier, Rubin captured the fallacy of the political opponents’ argument, which amounts to, “as a Republican I can’t see us creating 11 million new Democrats.” Wrote Rubin in response:
We can say: Relax. Breathe deeply. The bill won’t unless Republicans deserve to die off anyway. For starters, not all 11 million immigrants will qualify for citizenship, and even those who do may not want to pursue it due to the fines and the requirement for payment of back taxes. To say that those who came here for a better life (an entrepreneurial act) and went through all the financial requirements and trouble to get citizenship and then to vote can’t be won over by conservatives is preposterous. (If it is true, by the way, conservatism should die because a political philosophy applicable to only one race or social class is not morally or politically sustainable.) Moreover, this overlooks the reality that until they stop threatening to deport immigrants, conservatives will not get an audience with a range of minority communities and will continue to offend moderate voters, women, and young urbanites who regard the GOP as ‘intolerant.’
Twenty years ago, then-California Governor Pete Wilson led the charge to pass the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in his state, and he’s still referred to as “El Diablo.” His “leadership” on that hateful initiative changed California politics. The GOP is facing another Prop. 187 moment this year–but the impact will be national. The Schlafly/Coulter/Buchanan strategy, where the GOP kills immigration reform, will cement the GOP’s negative image with Latinos for decades to come. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is more than happy to lead that effort.
Instead of writing off one of the fastest growing voting demographics, John McCain and others want a chance to engage them–and they know the prerequisite to that engagement is passing immigration reform. Over the next few weeks, we’ll see which side of the GOP prevails.