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Florida Senate Selection Offers Opportunity for GOP to Mend Fences on Immigration

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Will George LeMieux Uphold Martinez Legacy, or Oppose Comprehensive Immigration Reform?

Since the Republican Party experienced historic losses with Latino voters in 2008, many have called on the GOP to stop the intolerant rhetoric and start embracing comprehensive immigration reform, or risk becoming a regional party for years to come.

While the legacy of former Governor Pete Wilson continues to haunt California Republicans, GOP leaders in the Sunshine State have taken a different tack.  Not only does the Florida Congressional delegation include a number of pro-immigration reform Republicans like Lincoln-Diaz Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, but now-retiring Republican Senator Mel Martinez—former head of the Republican National Committee—was a leading critic of the Party’s treatment of Latino and immigrant voters.  He said on Meet the Press just after the 2008 elections: “The very divisive rhetoric of the immigration debate set a very bad tone for our brand as Republicans…there were voices within our party, frankly, which if they continue with that kind of rhetoric, anti-Hispanic rhetoric, that so much of it was heard, we’re going to be relegated to minority status.”

With Florida Governor Charlie Crist’s appointment of George LeMieux to fill the Martinez seat, the Florida GOP is at an important cross-roads: will the new Senator follow Martinez’s example and push for comprehensive immigration reform, the policy supported by the vast majority of Latino voters and Americans overall?  Or will he embrace a more strident viewpoint, and further marginalize the Party at this crucial moment?  How will LeMieux’s record in the Senate help or hurt the budding Crist candidacy, particularly as he does outreach to Latino and immigrant voters?

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

“All across America, the Republican Party’s rhetoric and actions on immigration reform have sent Latino voters into the Democratic camp these past several years.  In the 2008 Presidential race, the Latino vote in Florida swung 27 points from Republican to Democrat compared to 2004*, and immigration reform is a defining issue for this group of voters.  Martinez was right to point his Party toward a new direction, and all eyes are on Governor Crist and George LeMieux to see if they will follow through and embrace a more inclusive stance on issues of importance to this group—issues like comprehensive immigration reform.”

The dynamics at play in Florida exist in other 2010 races as well.  Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib wrote: “Republicans remain deeply divided over whether to back an overhaul that offers citizenship to illegal immigrants.  Meanwhile, the party’s tone often comes across as hostile toward all immigrants.”  If the election results of 2006 and 2008 didn’t convince GOP politicians to change their stripes on the issue, current projections for the 2010 Census should.  States with large and growing Latino populations, such as Florida, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, will likely gain seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in the next round of redistricting, in no small part because of their Latino and immigrant populations.

“The Republican Party needs to decide if it wants to continue to shrink and retreat, or expand and grow.  Immigrant bashing may be red meat to some primary voters, but it’s a death knell for the GOP’s long-term viability,” said Sharry.  “Americans, Latino and otherwise, want common-sense immigration reform and an end to anti-immigrant politics.  We hope that the newest Senator from Florida continues down the path Martinez laid out, and that the national Republican Party follows.”

Fact sheets about public opinion on immigration reform among Latino, Republican, and Independent voters are available at www.americasvoiceonline.org/pages/polling.

*56-44 for Bush in 2004 and 57-42 for Obama in 2008


America’s Voice — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.