Karl Rove is right.
That's not a misprint.
President Bush's career guru has long insisted that Republicans will never achieve permanent majority status unless they can connect with Hispanic voters. Since his White House departure, he has warned Republicans that their persistent immigrant-bashing is hazardous to their long-term political health. In Rove's words, "You cannot ignore the aspirations of the fastest-growing minority in America."
But the party seems to be rolling up the welcome mat, even at the risk of alienating Hispanics who have the potential to swing five crucial states in the 2008 presidential election. As conservative political activist Clint Bolick warned in an Arizona newspaper not long ago, "If Republicans continue chasing Hispanic voters away, they can kiss their national electoral prospects goodbye."
Under severe pressure from the predominantly white GOP base, most party leaders have largely renounced the Bush-Rove inclusion strategy. Rove's original idea was to enact a reform law that would clear a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, thereby crafting the image of a Hispanic-friendly GOP; indeed, Bush was talking about this way back in 2001. But the party base didn't buy it, nor did the talk-radio conservatives, and the reform plan died in June on the Senate floor.
That was merely the latest blow to the inclusion strategy. Last year, when the Republicans still ran the House, they passed a bill that in essence sought to kick the illegals out of the country. The heat on Bush got so intense that he knuckled under and backed a bill to build a border fence. Sixteen months ago, a worried Republican analyst named Matthew Continetti told me, "The optimistic (GOP) message is pro-Latino and inclusive. The pessimistic message is 'Build a wall.' And one thing we know is, optimistic messages win."
Sure enough, in the congressional elections last November, the pessimistic message lost. Whereas Bush captured as much as 44 percent of the Hispanic voters when he won reelection in 2004 (a record high for a GOP presidential candidate), Republican congressional candidates drew only 30 percent in 2006. The latter figure is nine points lower than the GOP congressional share in the midterms of 2002. It also appears that '06 Hispanic voters, by dint of their growing numbers, were pivotal in helping the Democrats win four western House seats previously held by the GOP.
Hispanic Americans, of course, are not monolithic; they hail from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guatemala, Argentina, and many more. And even though, as a percentage of the U.S. electorate, their numbers have tripled during the past quarter-century (from 3 percent to the current 9), they are hardly dominant nationwide.
Nevertheless, despite their ethnic diversity, they share some political traits. They are generally conservative on cultural issues and wary of government handouts. (As John Raya, a Hispanic plumbing contractor in California once told me, "We're just Middle America with a tan.") On the other hand, they generally gravitate to the party that they perceive to be more tolerant and welcoming (traditionally, the Democrats). And while they are still not populous everywhere (accounting for only 2.7 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate, for instance), they now have enough numerical clout to tilt five states on the presidential election map: Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.
Bush won all five in 2004. But, in part because of growing evidence that Hispanics are souring on the GOP, Democrats say they believe all five are in play next year. It's no accident that the Democrats have decided to hold their '08 convention in Colorado. It's no accident that Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson - the first serious Hispanic to seek the White House, and ultimately a strong vice presidential possibility - is stressing his ethnicity and his record as governor of New Mexico.
Nightmare in Florida
But the Republicans' worst nightmare could be Florida. According to the 2006 exit polls, Florida Hispanics favored the Democratic candidates at the top of the midterm ballot for the first time in three decades. As Florida Republican congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban immigrant, reportedly lamented after the '06 elections, "There has been too much of an anti-immigrant tone (from the GOP). When people start to perceive that immigrants are being put in the same category as a threat to national security, it's hard to get your message across."
Nor does the GOP's traditional edge in Florida appear to be safe any longer. The party has long reaped the votes of the anti-communist Cuban Americans, the most dominant Hispanics in the state, who have long been focused on toppling Fidel Castro. But the younger voters in that community are increasingly registering as independents; they reportedly care more about their economic prospects than they do about Fidel. And they have been joined by an influx of new citizens from Central and South America. All told, as recently as a decade ago, at least 60 percent of Hispanics in pivotal Miami-Dade County were registered as Republicans; today, the GOP share is less than half.
And the GOP's ongoing immigrant-bashing is unlikely to reverse those figures. In recent weeks, presidential candidates (Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Tom Tancredo) have argued over who would take the hardest line. One perpetual tease, Newt Gingrich, has even insisted that "the war here at home" against illegal immigrants is "even more deadly than the war in Iraq and Afghanistan," a remark that fails the sanity test but nevertheless demonstrates the extent to which Republican politicians are willing to hurl red meat in the hopes of wooing GOP primary voters.
What's most puzzling is that the Republicans seem intent on repeating a sorry chapter in their own history. Thirteen years ago, in California, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson won reelection by bashing immigrants and supporting a referendum to kick illegal immigrant kids out of the schools. Two years later, GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole decided to adopt the same tone. The '96 results speak for themselves: Hispanic voting surged, and Republicans were wiped out in the California legislature. Meanwhile, Bob Dole received only 21 percent of the Hispanic votes nationwide, the worst GOP showing since that electorate was first tracked in 1972.
Karl Rove was well aware of the California lesson. So were the Hispanic Californians who lashed out at the GOP in 1996. I spoke with many of them, and their warning at the time was no different from what Rove is saying today.
Perhaps Sal Mendoza, an insurance broker and school board member in Santa Ana, Calif., said it best: "I think Republicans are so obsessed with their traditional conservatism : that they've lost track of the bigger picture. They're sitting on gold" - the Hispanic electorate - "but they don't know how to mine it. And if you can't mine it, you will lose."