October 31, 2008

Commentary:

At the Crossroads with the GOP

By Vince Vasquez

With the control of Congress and the White House now firmly in Democratic hands, the Republican Party will need to take some time in the coming months for serious soul searching and internal rebuilding. Key to their political recovery is restoring a professional party that works hard for the support of every voter, especially Latino voters, which voted 66% for Senator Barack Obama for President.

As the dust has settled since Election Day, it is now clear that Senator Obama won many traditional “red” Republican states which are now more electorally competitive due to their rise in Latino voter registration – Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, and Virginia. Though Senator John McCain publicly supported the embattled national leaders of Colombia and Mexico, and embraced centrist immigration and free trade policies, he lacked a record of public stewardship on the critical issues facing Latino families – the economy, health care, cost of living and public education. These “bread and butter” issues are high on the priority list for Latinos, who are less likely to be economically mobile than Whites, and are more sensitive to changes in government programs and downturns in the economy. Decades of Democrats filling the vacuum and talking about these issues has built considerable confidence and approval from Latino voters, especially here in California.

According to an August 2008 statewide study, 64% of Hispanic voters in the Golden State are registered Democrats, 18% are Republicans, and 18% are independents. As 39% of California Latino voters are also immigrants, it’s important for GOP leaders to recognize the need for adopting a model of inclusive politics, and set the tone by disciplining state lawmakers who attempt to use racial politics and illegal immigration as wedge issues for short-term political gain. This only hurts the reputation and credibility of the GOP in Latino households, which are all victims from the discrimination and ignorance stoked by those who espouse anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric.

Building a record of public stewardship on public education, healthcare and job creation is also important – these can no longer be issues that are simply abandoned for Democrats to talk about and own. The Republican brand must become more than a solid anti-tax, anti-government organization – it must be known for actively seeking new and effective solutions that improve the quality of life for every resident. GOP leaders should consider reaching across the aisle for more bipartisan initiatives, and work with non-profit and community groups to formulate new ideas and laws that are true to the principles of the party, but help Latino families with their day-to-day challenges.

Furthermore, build-ing credibility with Hispanic voters takes more than just simply hiring “Latino outreach coordinators;” it takes a sustained and serious effort to recruit and support qualified Latino candidates for higher office. As recently as 2002, the California Republican Party had a four-member “Latino Republican Caucus” in the State Assembly, but due to a lack of serious financial and political support from senior party leaders, the Caucus disbanded, and all but one Latino Republican retired from Sacramento. A better model for inclusive party membership can be found in the Florida GOP, which has spent millions of dollars and decades of work to elect and promote dozens of Latino candidates into the state house and Congress. Their efforts culminated with the 2004 election of U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, a Cuban immigrant who arrived to America not knowing a word of English. Voters can feel a sense of pride and ownership in a political party when they see faces and policies in place that are familiar and recognize their concerns.

Though the preferences for our future President differed, the California GOP and Latinos did build some common ground on Election Day in their support for two key ballot measures. Proposition 4, which would have required parental notification prior a minor’s abortion, and Proposition 8, which eliminated same-sex marriage received strong Republican and Latino voter support. According to exit polls, an estimated 53% of California Hispanic voters backed both Proposition 4 and 8. Though Latinos are overwhelmingly registered Democrat, they vote more conservatively on social issues than White Democrats, who overwhelmingly rejected 4 and 8. The relationships that are built with voters on key issues such as these should be tended to and matured over time by party leaders.

The Republican Party has a ways to go until they pick up the pieces from November 4th, but Latino voters have long been waiting for the day when both parties worked hard for their support. By taking small steps now in the right direction, the GOP can grow into a strong party that truly gives Latinos a choice on Election Day.

Vince Vasquez is the senior policy analyst at the San Diego Institute for Policy Research.

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