After Bill's Fall, G.O.P. May Pay in Latino Votes
LOS ANGELES, June 30 - Many Republican lawmakers returned to their
home districts in triumph this week, having beat back a comprehensive
immigration bill that many of their constituents had denounced as
But the bill's demise may have greatly damaged the party's ability to
meet its enduring goal of attracting a large percentage of the growing
number of Hispanic voters - thousands of whom are ostensibly in line
with the party on a host of other issues, said many Republican
lawmakers, consultants and Hispanic voters.
"There may be some short-term gain from this," said Linda Chavez, who
served in the Reagan administration and is now chairwoman of the
Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative public policy group. "But
in the long term, it is disastrous for the Republican Party."
The complex political dynamic that formed the failure of the
immigration bill one that sought to give legal status to millions of
illegal immigrants while providing enhanced security to the nation's
borders went far beyond partisan alliances.
Several Republicans, notably Senator Mel Martinez of Florida and
Senator John McCain of Arizona, helped write the bill and defended it.
But other Republicans led the opposition to kill it. They were joined
by some Democrats some who held views similar to the Republican
opponents of the bill, but also by liberals who felt that the bill's
provisions were too onerous.
In some cases, views of the bill were formed more along regional than
party lines, with unlikely allies like businesses interests and
immigrants' rights groups. Its champion was a conservative president.
Yet in terms of the politics of perception, Hispanics may have been
deeply alienated by the heated rhetoric that wound around the axle of
the debate, most of it stemming from a few Republican opponents and
the loud echo chamber of talk radio.
"The tone of the debate, and the way it was framed in sort of an 'us
against them' way, has done great harm in wooing Hispanics to the
party," said Ms. Chavez, who was the director of the United States
Commission on Civil Rights under Reagan.
For example, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a leading opponent of
the measure, at one point in the debate, said, "The bill would provide
amnesty and a path to citizenship for people who broke into our
country by running past the National Guard."
In essence, many Hispanics and Republicans said, the outcome of the
legislation may be less damaging to the party than the notion that
Hispanics are not welcome among them.
"I think it's bloody for the Republicans," said Antonio Gonzalez,
president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino-oriented
research and policy organization with offices in San Antonio and Los
Angeles. "The Democrats said pro-immigrant stuff, and even if they
didn't support it, it was because they said it wasn't good enough. The
Republicans said anti-immigrant stuff and so now they are going to get
killed with this."
It is a view that many Republicans share. Mr. McCain, who in May told
Republicans that "the Hispanic vote is turning against us in very
large numbers," expressed similar thoughts privately this week, aides
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Martinez, who is chairman of the
national Republican Party, called the bill's defeat "a bipartisan
failure." To win favor with Hispanics in the future, "We've got our
work cut out for us," he said. "I consider it serious."
Abel Maldonado, a prominent Hispanic Republican in the California
State Senate, said he felt that both parties were damaged, but that
"It hurts the Republican party a little bit more in terms of bringing
more minorities into the party."
Hispanics made up 8.6 percent of the nation's eligible voters in 2006,
according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, up from 7.4
percent in 2000.
In some states, like New Mexico, Texas and California, Hispanics make
up well over 20 percent of eligible voters, though that number is a
significantly smaller share of the overall Hispanic population than
other ethnic groups, the center found. In 2004, according to the
research group, Hispanics made up 6 percent of all votes cast.
Republicans have showed signs of making clear inroads in recent years
among Hispanic voters. President Bush took roughly 40 percent of the
Hispanic vote in 2004, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California
won roughly the same percentage of Hispanic voters in his state in his
re-election in 2006 a strong showing for any Republican candidate
But the party saw only about 25 percent of Hispanic voters come its
way in the midterm elections last year, an alarming trend for the
Republicans looking at 2008. Many Republicans fear that loss of
essentially half their market share, though they were not willing to
say so on the record.
With about two-thirds of the nation's Hispanic residents living in
nine of the states holding early Democratic primaries — including
California, where Hispanics hold more sway in the party than in most
other states — there is now an opportunity for Democrats to seize on
immigration as a wedge issue.
"You have to look at this in terms of outreach," said Adam Mendelsohn,
communications director for Governor Schwarzenegger. "I think that
some of the rhetoric on the immigration debate has a very negative
impact in terms of potentially alienating different constituencies.
The governor said in his speech to Washington that we need to cool the
rhetoric. He feels that the debate was hurtful to his party and the
country as a whole."
Many Republicans said that Democrats were to blame for tarring their
party, and that the Democrats deserved as much blame or praise,
depending on one's point of view, for the bill's downfall. They added
that they believed that the president's support for the bill and the
advocacy it enjoyed from other prominent Republicans would ultimately
help the party make its case with Hispanics.
"The rhetoric from radical left was to portray Republicans as
anti-immigration across the board," said Ron Nehring, chairman of the
California Republican Party. But, he added, "We just had a lengthy
national dialogue on the topic of immigration and what was established
by that is that Republicans support legal immigration and oppose
But Republican Hispanics are less sure that perception is widespread,
even when they share it. "It's definitely going to hurt the Republican
Party," said Bettina Inclan, executive director of the Republican
National Hispanic Assembly. "Clearly the leadership of the Republican
Party, meaning Bush and Martinez, are completely supportive. It is
unfortunate that there has been a lot of bad communication in the
Spanish press that all Republicans are against this bill."
Alfredo Maciel, 72, who owns a clothing alteration business in Costa
Mesa, said in an interview in Orange County on Friday that he blamed
residents in districts with strong anti-immigrant feelings rather than
either political party, including the Republican one he belongs to.
But nor did Mr. Maciel believe that the debate had enhanced the
party's image with potential new voters.
"I don't think Latinos are interested in joining the Republicans," he
said, "and I don't think Republicans are interested in attracting
Robert Pear contributed reporting from Washington, and Ana Facio
Contreras from Costa Mesa, Calif.