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How To Botch Latino Outreach

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., speaks with reporters following a closed-door Capitol Hill meeting in October 2013.
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., speaks with reporters following a closed-door Capitol Hill meeting in October 2013.

Even as Republican leaders wrap up a summer meeting in Chicago where they're preparing for 2016, the party's fate in that election may be getting shaped in other places.

Places like Okoboji, Iowa, where Rep. Steve King was captured on video getting into an extended argument with self-described "DREAMers," American-raised children of undocumented immigrants. Or Alabama, where Rep. Mo Brooks has been describing immigration overhaul efforts as part of a Democratic " war on whites."

Or even Washington, D.C., where a week ago, in order to win the support of immigration opponents like King and Brooks on a border crisis spending bill, leaders brought to the floor a companion bill ending President Obama's DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program that permits children who were brought to this country as minors by undocumented immigrants to remain.

Neither bill is likely to become law, but, say political strategists in both parties, the damage is done. While there may be little effect in the coming midterm elections — when Hispanic turnout is typically depressed — anger over the legislation and the well-publicized comments could cement a perception that becomes difficult to change by 2016.

"It just reinforces existing beliefs about Republican views on immigration and, more broadly, Hispanics generally," said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster.

"It's further evidence we're departing further and further into the wilderness," said John Weaver, a former adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain. "I don't really notice the 'war on whites' myself, but maybe it's raging in northern Alabama."

McCain is among the 13 sitting GOP senators who last year voted for an immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. It's that feature that angers many House Republicans, who typically represent districts with tiny Latino populations. They argue that any immigration law changes are inappropriate before the border with Mexico is fully secured.

In their opposition, they are also bucking leaders of the Republican National Committee, which last year specifically cited immigration legislation as a way to open doors among Hispanics and other minority groups.

It was this sensibility, in fact, that spurred House leaders to push for the border bill last week, even though it meant postponing the start of the August recess. Speaker John Boehner had already put out a statement suggesting that attempts to pass a $659 million funding bill were being abandoned for want of votes. Boehner and his team were quickly besieged by Republicans worried about heading home without having done anything about the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who had crossed the border. Republicans would seem uncaring, and Obama would have a political field day.

But in their desperation to win over immigration opponents, House leaders agreed to take up the proposal to end Obama's DACA program. It passed, with 212 Republican yes votes, and 11 Republicans voting no. (All but four Democrats voted against it.)

King was among those crowing about their victory — which led to Monday's confrontation at an Iowa fundraiser. Alabama's Brooks, meanwhile, defended the anti-DACA bill and dismissed criticisms against it as part of the Democratic "war on whites."

(On a Huntsville, Ala., Wednesday with National Journal columnist Ron Fournier, Brooks accused Fournier of contributing to divisiveness with his "commentary" — though Fournier was quoting from the Republican Party's own Growth and Opportunity Project.)

Both incidents have gotten widespread play in the media — more play than the Republican Party's outreach to Latinos is getting nowadays. In an interview with RealClearPolitics from Chicago, GOP chairman Reince Priebus called Brooks' remarks "idiotic."

"We have to be a party that grows. That means we have to have more people in our party, not less," Priebus said.

Weaver, who in recent years has criticized the party for its failure to embrace an immigration overhaul, said the latest turn proves his point. "If you're on the wrong side of history on immigration, that's not a good place to be," he said.

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S.V. Dáte
Shirish Dáte is an editor on NPR's Washington Desk and the author of Jeb: America's Next Bush, based on his coverage of the Florida governor as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Palm Beach Post.