Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert should paste these numbers on their bathroom mirrors and think about them each morning while they shave:
¢ 32 percent of Hispanics voting in the 2004 presidential election identified themselves as Protestants, up from 25 percent in 2000.
¢ 56 percent of those Hispanic Protestants voted to re-elect President Bush, up from the 44 percent supporting him four years earlier.
Why memorize this data? Because by going the wrong way on immigration reform, congressional Republicans easily could alienate a natural GOP constituency.
Many Hispanic Protestants are evangelical in their faith, too, which makes them even more likely to lean Republican. "They vote primarily on cultural issues, like protecting traditional marriage," said Matthew Wilson, a Southern Methodist University political scientist who studies the interplay of religion and politics.
But if Frist, the Senate majority leader, and Hastert, speaker of the House, steer their party over the cliff on this volatile issue, Hispanic Protestants could walk away from the GOP.
Ask Pete Wilson about that cliff. As California governor, he wrapped his arms around his state's anti-immigrant proposition in the 1990s and drove Hispanics from his party the way top GOP leaders once pushed away black voters by relying on a "Southern strategy" that relied on white conservatives.
The next several months will tell whether Frist and Hastert update those sorry chapters in their party's past. Frist champions a crackdown on the border, while Hastert oversees a House full of angry conservatives who voted to build a fence between the United States and Mexico.
Both have made noises about coming up with a broad immigration bill, so we'll see. So far, their tack has been different from that of Bush. Since his days as Texas governor, Bush has taken a humane stand toward immigration. Now, he wants to allow in more foreign workers while adding agents along the border.
Members of the National Hispanic Association of Evangelicals are with the president and have communicated their views directly to Frist and Hastert. The association's president, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, said from Sacramento last week that he told those two leaders that Republicans already are "batting 0-for-1," referring to the House bill with its get-tough stands on enforcement that has galvanized Hispanics nationwide.
Hispanic Protestants are among the galvanized. Baptist Pastor Lynn Godsey of Ennis, Texas, was so shocked by the House bill that he and other Hispanic ministers across North Texas formed a coalition in December.
Two weeks ago, they held a large prayer service, and they will keep drawing attention to proposals like the House's that intend to make it a crime to assist illegal immigrants. "This could affect us as pastors ministering to people's spiritual needs," Godsey told me.
Godsey and Rodriguez also formed a national group to press for "comprehensive immigration reform" - or a bill that allows in more foreign workers annually, secures the border and holds employers accountable.
To Hispanic Protestants, immigration is a profoundly religious issue. "We look at this through a biblical rubric," Rodriguez emphasized.
The issue also is a wild card for the GOP. The coalition Godsey formed with Rodriguez claims to represent 20 million Spanish-speaking evangelicals.
Unquestionably, though, Frist and Hastert are feeling pressure from loyal Republicans who believe it would be horrendous to allow in more immigrants. This sect of the voting public wants a tighter border, period.
A balanced bill is the only way to answer this teeter-totter.
Rodriguez and Godsey, by the way, recognize the need for compromise. The question is whether the Republicans running Congress will insist upon one. If they don't, they risk shutting the door on one of their fastest-growing constituencies.
"There's higher voter turnout among Hispanic evangelicals than among Hispanics in general," says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Or, as Rodriguez put it, "The Republican Party cannot win another presidential election without the Hispanic evangelical vote."
I don't know whether he's right, but I'd think twice if I were Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert, studying those numbers in the mirror.
- William McKenzie is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.