By Ken Mehlman
In 1980, as he was preparing to run for president, Ronald Reagan asked Lionel Sosa, an advertising executive from San Antonio, to lead his outreach to the Hispanic community. Reagan told Sosa his job would be easy: “Latinos are Republican. They just don’t know it yet.”
On this, as in so many other areas, Reagan was a man who saw the future. In 1984, he made history, receiving 32 percent of the Hispanic vote. President George W. Bush achieved similar results in 2000, and in 2004 won a record 44 percent of the Hispanic vote.
They’re not alone. Smart Republicans who have listened to, and offered solutions to, concerns of Hispanic-Americans have done even better: Sixty percent for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 44 percent for former New York Gov. George E. Pataki and 46 percent for former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens in 2002.
Even in the tough year of 2006, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger collected 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, while Florida Gov. Charlie Crist pulled in 49 percent and Arizona Sen. John Kyl won 41 percent.
These numbers shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has studied Hispanic voters. Hispanic-Americans tend to be conservative. Last year, pollster David Winston asked registered voters to rate themselves on a 1 to 9 scale from very liberal to very conservative. He found that, overall, the country was center-right and Hispanic-Americans viewed themselves slightly to the right of the country as a whole.
Hispanic outreach is not only natural for the GOP, it is crucial. The Hispanic community is the fastest growing segment of our country, and it is huge. There are 10 million more Hispanics in the U.S. than there are Canadians in Canada. If this population were a Latin American country, it would be the third largest. It would also be the richest. Salsa outsells ketchup and tacos outsell hot dogs. Univision is the channel where more Americans get their evening news than any other. In Nebraska, one out of every eight people under 35 is Hispanic.
Throughout our nation’s history, majority political coalitions have been built around welcoming the newest voters into the political process. In 1896, William McKinley built a generational majority by reaching out to immigrants filling America’s cities. Democrats built the New Deal majority around Roman Catholic and Jewish ethnics in northern cities who worshipped Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1980, millions of Evangelical Christians became more politically active and President Reagan welcomed them into a GOP majority. The majority party in the 21st century will be the party that reaches out to Hispanics.
There are several steps we can take to ensure that America’s fastest-growing and most conservative voter bloc joins the GOP. First, good policy is good politics. To win Hispanic votes, the GOP must be the party of those who aspire to the American Dream. Our founding Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, defined the American Dream as the “right to rise.” Most important is equal access to education.
The most direct route from economic struggle to middle class and wealth is through education. This will be even more important in the 21st century. When President Bush took office, two-thirds of black fourth-graders, 60 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders and one-third of white fourth-graders could not read at grade level. No Child Left Behind raised reading and math performance for all Americans and closed the majority-minority gap. We must reauthorize this important law, continuing to ensure that high standards benefit poor, minority and immigrant children who were too often left behind in the past. We must also increase pay for great teachers and those who teach in distressed areas, and empower parents with school choice.
Beyond education, the right to rise means all Americans have access to health insurance if they choose. Hispanic-Americans are, unfortunately, more likely to be without coverage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 32.7 percent of Hispanic-Americans were without health coverage in 2004, a statistic that has not changed much since. Hispanic workers are more likely to change jobs often or be self employed, which is why President Bush’s proposal for parity between workers who get health insurance from their employers and those who purchase it themselves would be helpful and popular in the Hispanic community.
Home ownership has always been an important element of the American Dream, and Hispanic-Americans have made enormous progress thanks to the hard work of many families and the innovative policies of the president. Hispanic home ownership is at an all-time high with 50 percent of Hispanics owning their homes. We must expand the ability of Hispanic families to earn and save more, which is why the tax cuts should be made permanent and why personal retirement accounts should be available to those who live paycheck to paycheck.
Second, good personnel are also critical to politics and policy. Catholic voters paid attention when the Democrats nominated Al Smith in 1928, becoming the Democrats’ largest voting group. Lyndon Johnson’s appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first black Supreme Court justice made history and cemented African-American support for the Democrats. President Bush appointed the most diverse administration in history, with the first Hispanic attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, a Hispanic commerce secretary, Carlos M. Gutierrez, and other top officials including former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, U.S. Treasurer Anna Escobedo Cabral and Israel Hernandez, one of the government’s chief export promoters. The first Hispanic to lead one of the national parties is a Republican, Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.), the GOP general chairman. We must work harder to identify and recruit future Hispanic leaders to run for office under the GOP banner.
Finally, on the critical and sometimes divisive issue of immigration, we should again follow the lead of President Reagan. One of his greatest gifts was to embrace “the politics of and.” Before Reagan, those who favored peace with the Soviets argued with those who counseled strength. Proponents of controlling inflation debated those who argued for reducing unemployment. Reagan argued and showed that these zero-sum debates didn’t have to be either-or. We had peace through strength. And through tax relief and sound money, we reduced unemployment and inflation.
On immigration, our nation should embrace “the politics of ‘and’” by ensuring we develop a comprehensive approach that maintains the U.S. as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. We need to secure our borders for all Americans: Whether your family has been in the U.S. for five generations or five weeks, your life is at risk if a terrorist can enter. We need to establish workplace enforcement that is certain and fair, both for employers and employees. And America must always remain, as Reagan imagined it, “a shining city … teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports, … and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
Reaching out to Hispanics is critical to our future. The fastest-growing, and most conservative, segment of the population are natural Republicans. The question is whether we will reach out and welcome these new voters into our ranks. While I don’t yet speak Spanish, there is one phrase I memorized as Republican National Committee chairman: “Mi partido es su partido.” (“My party is your party.”)
Ken Mehlman, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP, served as Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign manager, White House political director and chairman of the Republican National Committee. Reprinted from “The Politico” (http://www.politico.com/).