Republican Party candidates who won Tuesday’s primary elections have gone so far to the right on the immigration issue, that they may have shot themselves in the foot.
Look at what happened in Florida and Arizona, the two states with heavy Hispanic populations that held primary votes Tuesday for November’s midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections.
In both states, some of the most closely watched Republican primaries were won by hard-liners who support Arizona-style anti-immigration laws, or by moderates who shifted to the right and backed tougher anti-immigration laws shortly before the vote under pressure from the conservative wing of their party.
How are these Republican candidates going to woo Hispanic voters in November?
Granted, Hispanics nationwide vote heavily Democratic — President Barack Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had won 59 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 — but Republican candidates in most of the country’s largest states can’t win without a sizable minority of the Latino vote.
You don’t have to be a political wizard to figure that Democrats will put out ads in Hispanic media in coming weeks painting Republicans as the anti-Hispanic party that wants to enact Arizona-styled laws throughout the country and that is calling for denying U.S. citizenship to U.S.-born children of undocumented residents. And they will have plenty of primary-race TV footage to back up their claims.
That’s bound to energize Hispanic voters to get out to the polls and vote Democratic in November, when the Obama administration will desperately need them to avert a possible Republican takeover of Congress.
The Arizona law — temporarily suspended by a judge — demands that local police arrest people suspected of not having immigration papers after making a lawful stop. It has triggered widespread fear that police will stop anybody looking Hispanic, including U.S.-born Latinos.
One of the key winners of Tuesday’s primaries was Florida’s Republican candidate for governor Rick Scott, who — in part thanks to his hard line on immigration — defeated Attorney General Bill McCollum. Scott, a healthcare mogul who spent $50 million of his own money on the campaign, strongly supported an Arizona-style law for Florida.
In addition to his other troubles — his company was involved in one of the country’s biggest health care fraud scandals and paid $1.7 billion in fines — Scott will find it hard to win a substantial minority of Hispanic votes, without which he is unlikely to win the general election, Democratic strategists say.
“The Republican Party has gone so far to the right on immigration, that you can’t get elected in the primaries without taking a position on immigration that’s anathema in the general elections,” says Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi. He adds that while more than half of Americans support the Arizona law, more than 60 percent support a comprehensive immigration reform that would include some kind of path toward legalization for undocumented immigrants.
In addition to energizing Hispanic Democrats, the Republican candidates’ pro-Arizona stands in the primaries may lead many Hispanic Republicans to stay at home in November.
McCollum, who was backed by the national and state Republican establishment, may have lost the Republican primary race precisely because he embraced the Arizona law. That may have led him to lose key Hispanic support in Miami-Dade County.
Key state Republican leaders such as former governor Jeb Bush, or Miami Reps. Ileana Ross Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz Balart did not actively campaign for McCollum among their Hispanic constituencies, according to some Republican strategists.
As a result, the overall turnout in heavily Hispanic Dade County — a McCollum stronghold — in Tuesday’s primary was only 17 percent, against a statewide turnout of 21 percent, they say.
“The worst mistake in McCollum’s political career was the ridiculous political ploy of presenting an Arizona-like law two weeks before the election,” says Republican fundraiser Ana Navarro. “It was seen as pandering to the right wing, and it turned off Hispanic voters.”
My opinion: While polls show that Republicans will do well in November because of the country’s overall unhappiness with the economy and high unemployment, the anti-immigration rhetoric will cost them many Hispanic votes.
I, for one, will find it hard to vote for Republican candidates unless the party abandons its one-sided immigration stance. The Republican Party has done serious damage to itself, and it will have a hard time undoing it, even if it tries to shift to the center between now and November.
— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org