November 9, 2007

Did the GOP Scare Off Latino Voters?

By Juan Esparza Loera
Vida en el Valle

The way Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sees it, Republicans blew their chances at getting more of the Latino vote in upcoming elections because they failed to support comprehensive immigration reform.

That’s not the way Alex Burgos, a spokesman for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, evaluates the political scene. He believes Latino voters will tend to side with the Republican mantra of lower taxes and smaller government.

President George W. Bush put the Latino vote in play for Republicans when he captured about 40 percent of the Latino vote in his first presidential campaign. Although that percentage dipped a bit in his re-election campaign, Republicans saw a chance to chip away at what had been thought of as a safe Democratic base.

This year’s contentious immigration reform efforts pitted a Republican administration against its conservative Republican base, and appears to have given Democrats a play at a greater share of Latino votes.

They have history on their side. In California, the controversial Proposition 187, which sought to cut public benefits to undocumented immigrants in 1994, actually had a very different effect. Proposition 187 was passed by California voters but was struck down in the courts; and Latinos showed up in droves to register to vote and help Democrats retake control of the state legislature.

When asked about the Latino vote being in play for Republicans, Harry Reid, in a recent telephone conference call with Congressman Xavier Becerra, D-Los Ángeles, said, “Let me answer this first because I am so agitated. I have spent more time on the Senate floor this year on immigration than any other issue. Each time, three times, spending weeks and weeks on this, I have been disappointed by the lack of support by Republicans. All they want to do is build a fence; that’s their No. 1 marker.”

Reid said the country’s political landscape is changing, especially with Latinos, because “people understand that the value system of Hispanics is not with the Republicans, and that the value system of Democrats is based on things like working people deserve a break.”

The candidacy of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Latino, will also drive more Latinos to the polls, said Reid and Becerra. Republicans haven’t helped their cause by ignoring invitations to speak at conferences sponsored by major Latino organizations like the National Council of La Raza or debates organized by Univision, the country’s largest Spanish-language television network.

According to Becerra, Bush gave Republicans false hopes of getting the Latino vote.

“Remember, George Bush was acquainted with Latinos. He was governor of Texas (and has) relatives who are of Mexican ancestry,” said Becerra. “But after a while, people get tired of the serenata. They want deliverables,” he added. “After you sing the song from the floor up to the balcony, after a while, someone wants to see a wedding ring. Someone wants to see a commitment that you are going to do something.”

After two terms of the Bush presidency and 12 years of Republican rule in Congress, said Becerra, “Folks said, ‘Ya basta. That’s enough.’”

But Republican strategist Alex Burgos believes it is wrong for Democrats to count their Latino votes so soon.

“Democrats and others have long been dismissing the Republican Party’s progress with Hispanic voters,” said Burgos. “The Republican Party’s values of stronger families, a stronger economy, and a stronger military have great appeal to the Hispanic community as we’ve seen with Ronald Reagan’s and President Bush’s electoral successes.”

Burgos credits Reagan for putting the Latino vote into play for Republicans.

Plus, he added, Democrats are overlooking the fact that millions of Latinos are small business owners who favor less government regulation and better access to overseas markets, issues that Republicans tout.

“A stronger America is not possible if we’re not empowering the two million Hispanic business owners to create jobs, encouraging parental involvement to help reduce the woeful dropout rates among Hispanic students, or without the courage and patriotism of Hispanic soldiers in our military,” said Burgos.

Whatever happens with the Latino vote in 2008, neither party is taking the Latino vote for granted.

Both parties have done their best to reach out to Latinos. Both Democrats and Republicans have relied on Spanish-language web sites, consultants and press releases. Reid touts his sponsorship of soccer teams in Las Vegas. The Romney campaign released a Spanish-language campaign commercial last week.

Polls show that Latinos are concerned about the major issues of the day — education, jobs and safe neighborhoods — and that immigration, until recently, was not on top of the list.

Although several Democrats were involved in the defeat of comprehensive immigration reform, most political experts believe it will be Republicans who will pay the price with Latino voters.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Florida Sen. Mel Martínez after immigration reform failed earlier this year. He stepped down as chairman of the Republican National Party last week.

Fred Ruiz, co-founder of Ruiz Food Products, Inc. in Dinuba, has been a Republican his entire life.

“But I qualify myself as a very liberal Republican,” he said in a July 2004 interview. Yet, he expressed frustration with Republican support of Proposition 187.

“I could either bail out of the Republican Party or try to convince them to change their views,” said Ruiz, who hosted a Bush visit to his Dinuba plant in 2003. All Latino voters, he said, “will be Democrats if the Republican Party turns them away with their evil stuff (and) insensitivity to the population.”

Reid points to Nevada as a example of Latinos embracing his party. Fifty-eight percent of Latino voters in the state are registered Democrats, while 24 percent are Republican.

“Based on (Republicans’) performance on immigration reform, I’m surprised that it is at 24 percent,” said Reid.

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