The Republican Party has a problem heading into the elections — a Latino gap that may be getting bigger.
The Republican National Committee plans to roll out a major Hispanic outreach effort in the coming weeks, Roll Call has learned, but Democrats, who have traditionally held an advantage among those voters, may have beat them to the punch again.
In addition to efforts by the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, left-leaning groups have been coaching Latino voters to register their relatives and canvass neighborhoods.
The data suggest Democrats are gaining ground with the rapidly growing community.
In a hypothetical matchup between Obama and Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, 68 percent of Hispanics responding to a Pew survey released last month supported the president.
“We have catching up to do. I think we’ll admit we haven’t been the best at reaching out to the community,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said in an interview.
She would not disclose how much the outreach campaign would cost but said its focus would be on battleground states with large Hispanic populations: Nevada, Colorado, Florida and New Mexico. In New Mexico, eligible Hispanic voters account for 40 percent of the electorate.
In many of those states, the RNC faces an uphill battle. Even in Florida, where a large population of conservative Cuban-Americans live, more Hispanics are now registered as Democrats than as Republicans.
“Hispanics continue to show strong party allegiance to the Democrats,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.
Part of the RNC’s strategy is engaging young people through social media. About 600,000 Latinos reach voting age each year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Democratic groups have also focused on that subset. The left-leaning New Organizing Institute has trained young Latinos in Texas and Arizona on voter outreach. Judith Freeman, the group’s executive director and a Democrat, said it has become “starkly clear how much the Latino population is going to impact politics in the next 20 years.”
Political involvement appears to be growing with the population of first-generation Latinos — those who were born here or educated in American schools. Many of those leading advocacy efforts in the community belong to that generation.
In Arizona, 18-year-old Pedro Lopez led a competition among high schools to register voters in large Latino areas. Most of those who registered were parents of the students or members of the communities in which the students lived.
Seeing their children get involved politically “is encouraging the parents to join their sons and daughters and be part of the political process,” he said.
Through Lopez and others of his generation, Freeman’s group has been trying to reach the many Hispanics who are not using their right to vote. In 2010, a Pew analysis of government data shows that nearly half of the Hispanic population eligible to vote did not register to do so. Of those who did register, about 40 percent did not vote.
In 2008, a landmark election with record Hispanic participation, only 41 percent of eligible young Latinos voted, compared with 51 percent of young voters in general.
Organizers see these figures as an opportunity to bring in record numbers of voters who could reshape the electoral map.
“Latinos are going to be playing a larger and larger role in the elections,” said Alexandra Franceschi, the RNC’s Hispanic press secretary. Franceschi’s position was created last summer as part of the committee’s increasing focus on Latinos.
Democrats in Congress are also courting Latinos. In a move to appease Hispanic voters, the Senate scheduled a test vote last week on the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte to remain ambassador of El Salvador.
The Democratic National Committee has a counterpart to Franceschi — Ricardo Ramirez, who also is tasked with reaching out to Spanish-language media and its growing audience of eligible Hispanic voters.
Ramirez dismissed the Republican outreach efforts, saying the GOP is “on the wrong side of every single Latino voter priority.” Franceschi countered that the economy under Obama has disproportionately hurt Latinos, many of whom are working-class.
Republicans took a hit last week as Romney’s pledge to veto the DREAM Act sparked an outcry from Latino organizers. In the past, the bill that would give some illegal immigrants a path to legalization through college or military service has received bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.
On a conference call with reporters Thursday, left-leaning groups said Hispanics feel alienated by Romney’s stance.
“It’s a story of a huge lurch to the right by a party that was once truly divided and had some leaders that stood up for common-sense immigration reform,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which favors a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said the former Massachusetts governor supports immigration, just not illegal immigration.
“We’re focusing on reaching out to all voters, including Latino voters, who have been affected by President Obama’s failed policies,” Williams said.
Sharry and his colleagues point out that Obama has also disappointed them by increasing deportations and not passing friendlier immigration laws.
“One party is beating up on Latinos because it’s the easy thing to do. The other is saying, ‘Well, where else are they going to go?’” said Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino, which works to get young people involved in elections.
In addition to registering voters, Voto Latino has organized Hispanics against Republican-backed ballot initiatives that tighten voter-identification requirements. Kumar said the laws disproportionately depress minority-voter turnout.
Doug Heye, former communications director for the RNC, said Republicans could get more Latinos on their side if they improved how they message such policy positions.
While many in the Republican presidential field have taken a hard line on immigration issues, Heye said those policies don’t necessarily alienate Hispanics.
“It’s about communicating our policies in a smart way,” he said. “If we don’t engage growing communities, we will eventually condemn ourselves.”
Clarification: Jan. 9, 2012
Although the New Organizing Institute is a left-leaning group, it is nonpartisan.