It’s no secret that Republicans needed to revamp their outreach to Hispanics after Mitt Romney’s dismal electoral showing last year, and GOP leaders hope a new marketing effort will help their members connect with the burgeoning bloc of voters.
While the party’s leaders prepare the ground for passage of a major immigration policy overhaul this summer — something top Republican strategists generally see as an imperative — they are also starting to engage the Hispanic community more directly on other issues they hope will be fertile ground and can convince voters to give the GOP another look.
Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington is spearheading the effort, launching a Spanish-language social-media initiative and hiring an outreach coordinator to help members communicate effectively with the Hispanic community.
“One of her major goals coming in was to change the way that House Republicans message to all demographics, in this case, Hispanic[s],” conference spokeswoman Riva Litman said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who is of Cuban heritage, called the effort “a comprehensive strategy” in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
It starts with a grass-roots approach that encourages members to talk to Hispanic voters, asking them to make television and radio appearances on Univision and Telemundo, and penning op-eds that can be translated into Spanish.
And last week, the “Conferencia GOP” released a video in which Spanish-language members — Ros-Lehtinen included — spoke about Republican energy initiatives and how they would help Latino communities and boost jobs.
The strength and resonance of this strategy could be tested this summer, as House Republicans set out to sell their vision for an immigration rewrite to Latino voters.
“The question I get is, ‘I have a very conservative message, will this resonate with the Hispanic community?’” said Wadi Gaitan, who was hired earlier this year to serve as the conference’s deputy press secretary for Hispanic media. “We always want to make sure it’s not about becoming moderates, it’s about modernizing what we do.”
In addition to producing YouTube videos and maintaining a Spanish-language Twitter feed, Gaitan helps members tap into Latino media markets, provides training and equips them with “best practices” for reaching out to Latino voters.
Gaitan is also responsible for helping Republicans understand that reaching out to Hispanic voters doesn’t mean they have to change their political positions, but rather it is just a question of how to frame their positions in different ways.
“Mick Mulvaney is a perfect example,” Gaitan said of the South Carolina Republican. “He’s a tea party candidate and as conservative as you can get. ... He doesn’t have a Hispanic district at all ... but he’s been fantastic for our party, he’s been a great team player. ... He speaks the language and for the Hispanic community, it goes a long way.”
As for the immigration debates, Gaitan said, House Republicans have already started to engage Latino constituents on the issues through “listening sessions.”
But as things heat up this summer, he said, he plans to “put together a package on the best way to talk about the issues. What are the areas that are important to the Hispanic community? I want to create something that gives [members] awareness of what the Hispanic community is looking for.
“We haven’t gone yet from the listening session to the town hall,” Gaitan added. Town halls are forums where members can test their formal talking points.
The more conservative House Republicans have accused their colleagues of trying to cater inappropriately to Latinos by pushing what they call an “amnesty bill,” or legislation that would not secure the borders or prevent the country from becoming overrun with undocumented immigrants, lest they be called bigots.
“Democrats have been driving wedges between people using race and ethnicity ... and they’ve been better and better at it every year,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. “They’ve spent millions of dollars to tell Hispanics that Republicans are racist. I think half of our conference has taken that bait.”
From the perspective of Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, the Republican Party is already the Latino party.
“I have confidence that once people have done the research and see which party stands for what, and see which party is more pro-life and more pro-family and embraces a faith in God, they’ll become Republicans,” he said.
There have been episodes over the past year, however, that have done the Republican Party no favors on this front: Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, drew criticism for referring to Latino farm workers from his childhood as “wetbacks,” and an analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation was recently fired after writing in his doctoral thesis, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites.”
Gaitan’s own Honduras-born parents are perhaps a perfect example of this tension.
“They are conservative ... when it comes to fiscal policy. Same thing when it comes to social values, both parents are Christian and conservative,” Gaitan said. “But they’ve also recognized that in the past there has been a stronger engagement from the other side.”
Democrats think it’ll take a lot more than new marketing tactics to turn around their huge lead among Hispanics. Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, said Latinos are not likely to abandon the Democratic Party anytime soon.
“They obviously don’t understand what is important to the Latino community,” he said of the GOP.