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GOP Tries New Effort To Bring In Hispanic Voters

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush waves as he is introduced to the crowd during inauguration ceremonies for Republican Rick Scott on Jan. 4 outside the Old Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. On Thursday, Bush and other Republican leaders are launching a new effort to reach out to Hispanic voters.
Chris O'Meara
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush waves as he is introduced to the crowd during inauguration ceremonies for Republican Rick Scott on Jan. 4 outside the Old Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. On Thursday, Bush and other Republican leaders are launching a new effort to reach out to Hispanic voters.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other Republican leaders are launching a new effort Thursday to reach out to Hispanic voters.

The Hispanic Leadership Network is meant to help Republicans and conservatives listen to the Hispanic community and, in the process, figure out how to win more of their votes.

Hispanic Republican candidates had some big successes in November: Marco Rubio was elected to the Senate in Florida; Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez won the governorships of Nevada and New Mexico, respectively. But Republicans overall still lost the Hispanic vote nationwide by about 2-1 -- not much different than in 2008.

Bush wants to change that. "The challenge, though, is that we have a situation right now where Republicans send out signals that Hispanics aren't wanted in our party, not by policy so much as by tone," he says.

But it's more than just the tone. It's one issue in particular, says Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and a participant in Thursday's conference in Miami.

"Latinos are inherently conservative: They're socially conservative; they are entrepreneurial; they're pro-business. Immigration ... is that one issue that prevents us from winning the support of Latino voters," he says.

The Issue With Immigration

The last attempt at an immigration overhaul in Congress -- a bill that would have allowed young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children to become citizens if they enrolled in the military or college -- got only eight Republican votes in the House and three in the Senate.

Frank Sharry, an advocate of immigration overhaul, says that shows how much has changed since President George W. Bush tried to pass a law that would have provided a path to legalization for undocumented workers.

"Republicans have lurched to the right since Jeb Bush's brother made a heroic attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform back in 2007," Sharry says. "Clearly, there's a tremendous fear among Republicans that primary challenges will result from being centrist on immigration. It's cost them with the fastest-growing group of new voters in the country: Latinos, for whom immigration has become a defining issue."

Even though anti-immigrant voices seem to be getting louder inside the Republican Party, Jeb Bush is convinced that they do not speak for most on the right.

"That view is in the minority even in the Republican Party," he says. "But, I think if you got to the point where legitimate, emotional concerns about the lack of border security and the lack of rule of law, once those issues subsided, then you would find a great majority of people that would support some solution to the large number of people that are here illegally."

A New Conversation

Bush isn't the only one trying to solve this problem for the GOP: Newt Gingrich, a potential presidential candidate and a thought leader inside the party, talks about creating a zone between amnesty and mass deportation.

Columnist Ruben Navarrette, who is also speaking at the conference in Miami, says there is a new conversation going on beneath the surface in the GOP -- particularly when it comes to the push by some Republicans to repeal the 14th Amendment in order to deny birthright citizenship to children born to undocumented parents.

"They're not fools -- they realize that there are those places where they can overplay their hand, and I think the 14th Amendment change is a perfect example of a bridge too far," Navarrette says. "It's poison. You play with that, and I am never, ever going be able to go before a group of Hispanic women ... and convince them that the Republican Party isn't anything but a bunch of ogres."

A small but encouraging sign to Aguilar is the decision to deny Iowa Rep. Steve King the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. King is one of the party's most strident voices on the issue.

"To me, the message is, 'Steve King, you're too loud and you're saying things that are very offensive. We don't want to see that.' That's a very good first step: Reject the ugly rhetoric," Aguilar says. "The question now is can we propose, can Republicans practically propose immigration solutions that go beyond enforcement only? And if we do, Hispanics will respond very favorably."

Presidential Politics

If Republicans can't go beyond enforcement only, Navarrette says, the GOP is doomed as a national party.

"Demographics do not lie. They will never again elect a Republican president if they don't get this right in short order," he says, "because Hispanics are increasing in population at a rate where they're going to wipe away everything else."

Hispanics are expected to reach 30 percent of the population by 2050. And speaking of Republican presidents, Sharry thinks it's interesting that only one potential GOP candidate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is attending the conference in Miami this week.

"Republicans are flummoxed on how to talk about this issue in a way that doesn't incite the base against them and that reaches out to Latinos and says: 'I get you,' " he says. "The only person in the Republican Party who did that successfully was George W. Bush. And he won that coveted threshold of 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 that powered his way to re-election."

And that is the cold, hard math of the GOP's problem. In 2012, they need to find a way to win more than 40 percent of that vote -- and not just in Florida but in other swing states, like Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.